Court: Search Engines Ignore Keyword Meta Tags

screengrabA federal court has ruled that using trademarked terms in keyword meta tags does not constitute trademark infringement.

In the ruling, federal district court Judge Rudolph T. Randa of Milwaukee wrote that search engines today rarely rely on keyword meta tags when deciding which pages to return as search results.

Some search engines consider title meta tags programmed into a site's code to find Web pages related to users' queries, but tend to give little if any weight to keyword meta tags. Search engines also determine relevance based on other factors, such as whether particular sites are included in the human-edited directory known as the Open Directory Project.

The recent ruling stemmed from a dispute between dietary supplement company Standard Process and Scott J. Banks, a chiropractor and nutritional counselor who sells Standard Process products online. Banks started selling Standard Process supplements nine years ago, but in 2004 the company told Banks he was no longer authorized to do so.

Banks continued to sell the products online, which sparked Standard Process to sue--alleging, among other charges, that Banks violated Standard Process's trademark by using the company's name in keyword meta tags. In addition to rejecting that charge, the federal court found Banks is legally entitled to sell the products, provided that he indicates on his site that he's not an authorized seller.

The decision stands in stark contrast to a ruling earlier this month by a federal appellate court in the 11th Circuit. That court held that Axiom Worldwide used a rival's trademarks in commerce by incorporating them in meta tags. The appellate court found that the tags caused Axiom to appear in the No.2 spot in Google's organic results when users conducted searches on the trademarked terms. The 11th Circuit did not specify which type of meta tags Axiom allegedly used--or what, if any, evidence proved that the tags caused Google to display Axiom high in the organic results.

Randa's Standard Process opinion quotes an article by Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman for the proposition that search engines "progressively realized that keyword meta tags were a poor indicator of relevancy."

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