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Bidding on Trademarked Keywords is Fine: It's Called Competition

The whole fuss around buying competitor’s keywords in pay per click marketing campaigns is stupid. Moronic. Foolish. Wasteful.

Did I mention bad? And stupid?

There is nothing wrong with bidding on a competitor’s brand name.

Let me say it a different way: If you’re Infiniti, it’s perfectly OK to make sure your ad shows up if someone searches for ‘Audi’.

Why It’s OK: It’s Called Competition

See, putting your ad next to someone else’s ad is called competition.

On TV, commercials say “Our product beat [competitor name here]’s product 3 out of 4 times!” Competitors buy space opposite each other, too.

Right now, Ford is squeaking “We’re now equal to Toyota in quality!” I’d love to smack the genius that came up with that as a marketing message. But it’s a good illustration of using a competitor’s name in your marketing message.

In magazines you’ll see comparisons all the time:

BMW ad

Is Audi going to sue BMW over this ad? No.

Yet this BMW ad is more offensive to Audi than BMW buying a simple PPC ad. The BMW ad includes Audi’s name; search engines won’t let you do this in a PPC ad. If BMW bought an ad for the keyword ‘Audi’, the most they’d get is a brandless bit of copy, likely ranked lower than Audi’s ad.

In fact, Infiniti is doing just that, right now:

audi-infiniti ad

They’re inviting comparison. That’s most of what marketing is: Prompting consumers to compare you favorably to your competitors.

So Why The Fuss?

So why sue over a pay per click (PPC) ad?

Possible answers include:

  • You are an attorney who still thinks the internet is a bunch of tubes.
  • You are a dolt.
  • You have nothing better to do.
  • You feel sorry for all those judges out there and want to keep them company.
  • You are afraid of competition and want to shut it down in this new medium as quickly as possible

I suspect the real answer is the last one.

The rising storm over trademarked keywords has nothing to do with fairness. If it did, everyone would look at the history of comparative advertising and realize this is a tempest in a teapot.

This is about executives who know nothing about internet marketing. They see a new medium. They don’t understand it. So they try to simplify it by locking it up.

When in doubt, regulate.

But it’s a losing game: They’re playing tug-of-war with a much bigger opponent.

kitty tug of war

What You Can’t Do

I’m not suggesting folks should start using deceptive ads, or putting competitor brand names in the ad copy itself. That’s bad.

Someone’s doing it to me right now, accidentally or on purpose, and it drives me up a wall:


Viva La Keyword Revolution’

I am saying it’s ridiculous to try to prevent bidding on trademarked terms. Screw that.

I said a naughty word, so you know I’m serious.

I’m off to bid on Coca-Cola, WellsFargo and Mazda. See ya later.

CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. Ian, after being on the receiving end of adwords from competitors when I worked at 48hourprint.com I decided it was wasn’t a good idea to do the same thing to them. Though like you with conversation marketing, competing on printing in 48 hours has its own generic problems.
    Did you see my post about Mzinga a few months ago, the resolution from the company’s vp of marketing?
    Interestingly, Communispace was also involved, except this time Mzinga was competing by buying ads on their trademark name and putting the trademark in the ad.

  2. Interesting. I wonder if there’s a pattern here. 10 days later and they still haven’t taken down the ad…

  3. In general I agree with you Ian. Resisting this is like trying to paddle upstream, especially with larger corporate advertisers. However the smaller individual branded businesses may have a good point that it’s a very bad idea. Case in point:
    A local Seattle Realtor who has a very popular blog and is well known in the industry found that a competitor was buying a HIS PERSONAL NAME as a PPC search term and trying to re-direct traffic to her site. He then punk’d her in a scathing blog post and invited the whole local community to jump in a dis her. She ended up having to make a very public humble apology to try to save her reputation because EVERYONE in the local blog community disapproved. (see blog post below)

  4. As with any marketing, you need to be very conscious of the community, sensibilities, etc.. You have to be very careful when buying someone’s actual name – that’s getting personal, and it’s bound to draw a strong response.

  5. Ian,
    This is certainly a prevalent topic in the PPC industry. I agree this is a slippery slope, but am wondering if, and how you were able to trademark the broad phrase “conversation marketing”?
    Also, if you did obtain a trademark, did you try to enlist the help of Google via their AdWords Trademark Complaint Procedure?
    If a phrase is not trademarked, what recourse does one have?

  6. Non-profits who use PPC marketing (as I did for many years at my previous employer), are really hurt by this.
    Each situation is different within this issue, but it, across the board, hurts non-profs at least as much as for-profs.

  7. @Michael In the end it comes down to some really unscrupulous people taking something that’s OK waaaay too far.
    If I create an ad and bid on ‘Cancer’, if it’s topical that’s OK. If I bid on ‘Cancer Society’, frankly that’s evil, and the search engines should be on that. They aren’t.

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