Every time the good people at Google want to free the world's information, there are a few people standing by who want to slow or stop the process. Try to index a few library books and the Association of American Publishers files a lawsuit. Sell an advertisement against a trademark and attorneys start crawling out of the wood work to file suit.
The latest round of lawsuits got lost in the holiday downtime shuffle, but really shouldn't be ignored. Four days before Christmas, the Christian evangelical group, Jews for Jesus, filed suit against Google because a blogger registered "jewsforjesus.blogspot.com" and used Blogger, Google's free blog service, to publish his opinions about the group.
The phrase "continuing, irreparable and imminent harm" keeps popping up in lawsuits, and the outcome of these actions will undoubtedly shape the future of search and search engine marketing. There are, in fact, bigger issues at work here -- like whether lawsuits will cause imminent harm to the search business.
When in doubt, sue
The recent changes we have witnessed in the search business model are astounding. Yahoo! is approaching video with the type of zeal that only Hollywood can provide. Google has taken video to the next level with key partnerships to sell content, may be entering the PC market and has quite a robust offering in desktop utilities with Google Pack.
Most of what we have seen from courts to date has been pretty predictable. GEICO sued Google over rights to sell the brand name. On the surface, the case seemed pretty cut and dry; I own my name, you sold advertisements using my name to my competitor and profited from it. GEICO lost and it was determined that keyword ads that trigger trademarks do not constitute infringement. In France, courts had a different opinion when a judgment for the plaintiff was issued in the Louis Vuitton versus Google action. (Bob Heyman of Mediasmith had a recent piece on the French case.)
A few remaining keyword trademark suits are dragging on, but with U.S. courts leaning toward exonerating the search sites it seems unlikely that we'll see any big changes in the responsibility of the search site. The next target for litigation will undoubtedly be the advertisers and possibly even third parties placing the ads, although no one has ever gotten rich after seeking compensatory damages from a search marketing firm.
Jews for Jesus saves… err sues
Search advertising is not just for the query box anymore, and ads are appearing near just about every type of content, including blogs. According to Reuters, Susan Perlman, associate executive director with Jews for Jesus stated, "One of the wonderful things about the internet is that there is freedom of expression, but there should be a protection... so that organizations like ours can represent ourselves."
There is protection for domain names, and it turns seven years old this year. 1999's Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act might have something to say about future lawsuits. AOL's legal department site offers the following summary of the act. "It found that the unauthorized registration or use of trademarks as internet domain names or other identifiers of online locations (commonly known as 'cybersquatting') -- (1) results in consumer fraud and public confusion as to the true source or sponsorship of products and services; (2) impairs electronic commerce, which is important to the economy of the United States; and (3) deprives owners of trademarks of substantial revenues and consumer goodwill."
However, a new precedent stating that a site is ultimately responsible for content users generate would be unthinkable. The floodgates would be open for action against almost any company that has a user generated platform. A win in this instance seems very unlikely. After all, eBay isn't responsible for untrue negative postings about eBay store owners; the person that posted the negative comment is to blame.
The real issue is whether the domain squatting legislation applies to a blog URL, or third level sub-domain.
Think bigger, much bigger
The Google library project is another seemingly harmless task that has come under fire. In mid to late 2005 several groups initiated law suits against the information indexing champion. The writers and publisher groups feel their trademarks are being violated by Google's ongoing plan to index millions of books from three major university libraries -- Michigan, Stanford and Harvard.
So indexing library books might cause harm, what about the next generation of search?
Google or MSN's high quality maps might be held responsible for images used in planning robbery getaways, terrorist attacks and random acts of school violence. RSS feeds taken from point A to point B on the web that serve advertising could be thought of as a trademark infringement and therefore causing irreparable harm.
Google's new video store is a personal favorite, and we have yet to see the first lawsuit against it. I defy you to find another place where you can buy an episode of the "Brady Bunch," follow it up with home video depicting a grade school age girl firing a heavy machine gun and then wash it all down with a racy beer ad. I wonder what kind of damages they'll seek on that one?
More complications to come
Maybe the irreparable and imminent harm we face will be more closely related to the intellectual fallout associated with the ease of consumption of bush league media -- let's say, for example, Uncle Bob's home video or consuming mass quantities of old "Brady Bunch" episodes. If Google wants to index books in a card catalog -- that's a problem -- but it's ok to watch little kids shooting machine guns and morons on BMX bikes riding the do-it yourself vasectomy trail.
Yes, that is much better than having instant access to the Oscar Wilde collection. What was I thinking?
To date, the message from our judicial system is clear. Sites have yet to be held responsible and the liability may be easily extended to advertisers or third parties. Playing it safe with trademarks in directive search just isn't enough anymore. Legal grey areas will continue to be exploited until this young little industry can grow up. Laws will become more specific; search will earn its litigious stripes, and we can get about the business of being in business.
iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Mr. Ryan is managing partner at Kinetic Results.
Duh. It was hard to read an industry article this year that didn't in some way reference the overarching trend toward programmatic buying and other forms of marketing automation. That said, the tones and takeaways of those articles varied greatly depending on the writer. "Programmatic" has simultaneously been heralded as the savior and destroyer of the "art" of marketing. Ultimately, it's simply progress -- the same type of progress that so many industries before us have seen.
Like programmatic, it was hard to skim an industry event agenda this year without the word "native" jumping off the page and punching you in the face. Love it or hate it, think it's new or not, it's where the money is going. The same publishers who decry it in editorial commentaries are offering it on their own sites.
Unlike a lot of marketing buzzwords that come and go, "native" has actually hit the mainstream. (If John Oliver does a 10-minute segment on it, it's mainstream.) That means we're likely to be stuck with the term for at least a while longer.
As we knew it would be, Google Glass was just the silly, silly-looking start. All eyes now are on smartwatches. And because it's a trend among consumers, it's a headline among marketing publications. But how brands begin to play in this deeply personal space is still very much up in the air. Until someone figures out that logical brand play, we'll ferociously devour news about new devices and speculate as to where the future of mobile marketing is going.
Corporate social responsibility. It's not a new trend. It's long been a part of big-business human resource documents that no one reads. But this year, more so than any before it, marketers have realized that doing good is simply good business. As such, we're seeing a rise not only in marketing efforts related to philanthropic causes, but also in entire business models built around the concept of benefitting the world while bettering the bottom line. (Just look at companies like Warby Parker and TOMS.)
Where consumers go, marketers will follow. In 2014, people couldn't stop taking selfies. Even more so, they couldn't stop saying "selfie." It's a fun word -- selllllffffffiiiiieee. Anyway, it's no surprise that brands this year got onboard the selfie train. That train itself is long enough for me to write an entire article on it. (Oh wait. I did.)
If it didn't have a hashtag, it didn't exist this year. Increasingly, hashtags are simply how people choose to categorize their online lives, and it's a natural way for brands to participate in the common social speak -- while also enabling them to effectively monitor the reach of their efforts. Marketing hashtags are so prevalent at this point that they're now earning their own awards categories.
Content marketing. You can't escape the term. Again, like native advertising, it's not new. But this is bigger. Much bigger. Content marketing is marketing. But if you repeat a term enough and people buy into it, it's easier to garner both budget and respect for it. That's what's happening with "content" right now, just like social before it. Content marketing agencies, specialists, technologies -- you know how this goes. We'll hang our hats on "content" until a similarly all-encompassing trend swoops in to take its place.
You could swap in a handful of other words here, but I think "Instagram" epitomizes the continued strong trend toward social visuals that marketing has seen over the past 12 months. Compelling imagery has always been at the heart of advertising. But today, those images aren't necessarily originating within agency walls. The most effective marketing visual today might be the one that a teenager just snapped of her recent coffee purchase. Or newly polished fingernails. Or most coveted pair of shoes. The trick now is finding and harnessing the skills of these social photographers.
Strategies aren't just "mobile" now. They're "mobile-first." And it's about time. It means that when marketers think about a given component of a campaign, they consider the experience of the phone and tablet users up front, rather than as an afterthought. That said, while "mobile-first" is an increasingly easy approach to take with new initiatives, most brands and agencies have to confess that there are still a lot of legacy campaigns and marketing platforms out there that have yet to adapt for the mobile mentality. They're easy to spot but often hard to replace.
This ties in part to another term that probably should be on this list too -- big data. But unlike big data, attribution is a more manageable concept -- albeit a tricky one. But this year, even marketers who have no idea how to achieve proper attribution across channels at least knew they needed to pretend to be figuring it out. The C-suite is no longer content to throw money at multiple digital channels and assume that, somewhere in there, good things will happen. No. They're starting to ask smarter questions. Is our social media spending really moving the needle? What if we increase our paid search spend instead? Where are the conversions really happening? They have questions. To date, many of us have not had answers. Attribution is complex -- just like a customer's path to purchase. But we can't hide from it any longer.
"Blurred action from car at high speed" image via Shutterstock.