Research reveals extent of search hijack among UK’s tour operators

More than half of the UK’s leading tour operators have had their brand names “hijacked” online – often by direct competitors – while one in four operators have themselves used another company’s brand in a pay-per-click (PPC) search marketing campaign.

According to research by new media design agency Nucleus, the two most active “brand name interceptors” were responsible for 27 per cent of all attempted brand hijackings.

Nucleus chief executive Peter Matthews says the findings show that while half of all tour operators clearly understand the internet and PPC search marketing, half do not – “and it’s that half who are suffering”. Matthews adds: “The internet is becoming the principle channel for marketing travel services, and companies that use search marketing effectively have a clear competitive advantage over rivals that don’t.

“One company in the survey had four competitors bidding for its brand names with the major search engines – and the managing director didn’t even know until we told him. He was incensed.”

As the research was conducted, three major tour operators, First Choice, Thomas Cook and Thomson, asked search engine Google to stop allowing travel agents and others to buy their names for PPC campaigns.

While the research specifically looked at PPC or paid-for search marketing, it also found instances of other interception techniques tailored to redirect natural searches. One tour operator had hidden brand names belonging to a range of major hotel chains – such as Hilton, Jarvis, Meridien and Sheraton – in the underlying computer coding on its website. While such codes – known as “metatags” – are not visible to humans, the software programs which index the internet for the major search engines can read them, so again searchers looking for particular brands may be “hijacked”. Such use of brand names is often without the permission or even the knowledge of the brand owner, and is regarded as unethical.


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