Search and ye shall find

Search marketing is a powerful tool, but brands must beware: competitors can easily use it to divert potential customers to their own websites.

Used intelligently, search marketing can contribute hugely to reinforcing brand values: ignore it altogether, and marketers risk losing control of their brand online to their own affiliates or even to their rivals.

Most marketers know they need search – but they don’t really understand it and they tend to dismiss it when it comes to brand building. Yet, just as there is little point spending a fortune on wonderful creative work if the ads appear in the wrong media, there is little point spending money on search marketing without a strategy to link the activity directly to core brand values and to an understanding of what the target market is doing online.

Most search engines provide two types of listing: free and paid-for. In the free listings section of a search site’s page, users will be shown those links deemed most relevant. Paid-for listings show results based on keywords bought by advertisers.

Search marketing, at its simplest, involves two main operations.

The first, search engine optimisation, analyses the software used by engines such as Google or Overture, in order to “tweak” a website so that it comes as high up the search rankings as possible.

The second, paid-for search, involves identifying the main keywords people type in when searching the Web, and “buying” those keywords deemed most likely to lead consumers to the website.

Strong search findings

Used properly, search can contribute directly to a major increase in visits to brands’ websites. Overture Northern Europe director of marketing and small business Karen Salamon refers to a recent Nielsen study of branding online which showed that “click-through rates increased dramatically for those brands using paid search.”

Tino Nombro, managing director of search marketing agency AmberGreen, says: “Search marketing is not a traditional method for brand building – if you want to build a brand online, the first step should be e-mails, sponsorship and banners. But search marketing should definitely be used to reinforce the brand.”

The first step, Nombro adds, is to “look at the keywords people have been using over the past 30 days. In an immature market, you’ll find a lot of generic searches – someone looking for holiday accommodation might type in ‘hotel’. In a mature market, the keywords will be much more sophisticated.”

Above all, Nombro observes, “what’s important is the relevance of search terms to the product you offer. You want the consumer to say: ‘That’s exactly what I was looking for – thanks very much.'”

Sometimes, surfers use brand names to define a particular type of product, in the way that “Hoover” has become both a generic term for vacuum cleaner and a verb.

WebFinder.com internet channel marketing manager Karen Francis says: “The question is: are users really looking for a particular brand when they do a search, or do they want a product or service related to that brand?”

Unfortunately, the law on trademarks and copyright has a long way to go to catch up with the internet. On some search engines, it is possible for a company to “buy” keywords which are actually the trademark of a rival company, so consumers using a brand name to search may be taken to a rival’s site.

Alternatively, marketers can “hijack” users searching for rivals’ brand names in various ways. For example, a website for Company A could hide Company B’s brand names or advertising slogans in the underlying computer code. While ordinary surfers never see this code, the software the search engines use to catalogue the Web do: so Company A’s site will be deemed to be more “relevant”, despite actually pushing rival brands.

The legalities are still being debated by lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic, and matters are further complicated by the fact that search engine companies sometimes apply different rules in their UK or European operations to the ones that apply in the US.

Then there is the issue of affiliate companies and their use of brand names in keyword searches. Research suggests that in the mortgage market, for instance, searching for brand names owned by particular lenders will often take surfers to sites operated by their affiliates, which means that the brand owner ends up paying a commission for a sale which could have been made through its own website.

Graeme Radford, a director at digital agency Guava, says: “Most pay-per-click search engines allow brand owners to stop competitors using their brand as a search term, although the onus is on the brand owner to request that protection. Major search engines implement such requests swiftly and monitor the position.” But he argues that brands themselves need to implement rules on their affiliate programmes to prevent affiliates from misusing their brand names.

Head of e-commerce law at Sprecher Grier & Halberstam LLP and Weblaw, Simon Halberstam, says: “Copyright law is unlikely to be of much assistance unless the competitor has copied substantial chunks of website content. Trademarks, registered or unregistered, are a far more powerful lever and have already been used by companies to deal with such unfair use of their company or brand names.”

Halberstam cites the case of road haulage software company Road Tech, which won &£15,000 in damages against a competitor that used Road Tech’s registered trademark “Roadrunner” as a meta tag to divert traffic to its own website. “The use of a rival’s trademark as a meta tag solely to attract people from the trademark owner’s site to that of the rival’s was said to constitute a clear case of trademark infringement and passing off,” says Halberstam.

Trademark tangle

Struan Robertson of law firm Pinsent Masons explains: “Sometimes, the legal issue is simple in keyword advertising. If Reebok sponsored the word “Nike” as a keyword, Nike would have little difficulty in getting it back. But if Reebok sponsored the word “sportswear”, Nike would be powerless to act. The grey area between these hypothetical examples is where most problems with keyword advertising occur: disputes tend to involve terms that some say are generic, but others say are trademarks.

But even if some of the legalities are still unclear, it is evident that search is here to stay.

As Marcos Richardson, European director of traffic tracking and analysis company WebtraffIQ, observes: “Clicks can be measured, qualified and quantified more easily with this medium than with other off- and online advertising techniques.” Marketers who fail to include search marketing in their media plan “would be failing their business”.

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