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When All Else Fails, Sue the Blogger!

Kevin M. Ryan
When All Else Fails, Sue the Blogger! Kevin M. Ryan

Every agency's worst nightmare is publishing the wrong information in an advertisement. There are countless urban legends where an agency misspelled a company name or published a telephone number that equated to releasing something horribly inappropriate for public consumption.

In the old days, mistakes were made, publications were notified and damage control ensued.

Those days are gone.

Anyone with internet access can apparently serve as judge, jury and executioner.

Today, bloggers the world over watch every move. They record actions and bring unwanted attention to mistakes and voice opinions about them. As an example, let's look at a recent incident. The story, which unfolded in the past few weeks, includes keyword search terms, ad effectiveness and arguments over free speech.

Here's how it all started
Maine resident, blogger and web design business owner Lance Dutson noticed the Maine Office of Tourism was bidding on terms that included the keyword "Maine" to drive traffic and build awareness.

The tactical presence of said keyword included keyword matching for multiple variations of term "Maine." Mr. Dutson pointed out several alleged tactical errors in the program execution. For example, if you typed the phrase "Maine plumber" you would see a search ad for the Maine Office of Tourism's website.

Other blogged depictions of perceived tactical errors included illustrating how match types work. Inappropriate phrases like "Maine child pornography" would be included in the search program if you happened to enter that in a search box.

The agency also allegedly mistakenly placed an ad that had a telephone number for an adult chat line instead of a toll-free number for Maine's office of tourism.

This story has been the subject of national media coverage because a lawsuit was filed. Not by the blogger mind you, but the agency ultimately responsible for these campaigns. Instantly, words like "free speech" and "taxpayer's rights" made headlines and it seemed everyone was jumping on the bandwagon to help little David fight Goliath.

Error, or best practice?
Effectively launching, managing and optimizing a paid search initiative is complicated. Legal word gravel and unwarranted allegations aside, one could easily argue that launching a paid search initiative in the tourism category to encourage travel to one state in 50 is even more complicated.

Numerous industry experts in the search engine marketing field (including myself) have published best practices in using matching in paid search advertising and the potential pitfalls.

In a nutshell, certain phrases from a match program are specifically removed. These "negative" terms are added to help preclude potential disasters and remove non-performing or irrelevant terms.

The benefit of matching is simple: By using broad match an advertiser can, over time, gather a very large list of appropriate and relevant terms to target an audience with exact keyword or phrase matching.

Consider the cost of developing a keyword list for a generic business and the subsequent missed opportunities if keywords are left out before tossing around the taxpayer liability argument.

Who will cry for Goliath?
The national media coverage was quick to paint New York-based Warren Kramer Paino as the big evil ad agency, with an itchy legal trigger finger-- a big New York City ad agency that was merely trying to stifle a blogger's right to free speech.

I wonder how that happened.

"Our first step was not to initiate a lawsuit. We made an attempt to reach out to Mr. Dutson at his request and scheduled a meeting with Mr. Dutson, members of the press and local government," says Thomas McCartin, president Warren Kramer Paino. "The lawsuit was a last resort."

The ad Mr. Dutton referenced and published on his blog as part of the claims the agency was "pissing money away" was merely a comp. A sample, if you will, and there were never any media dollars placed behind that creative.

The search marketing initiative may well represent a solid best practice in building a search initiative. Regrettably, terms that may include an inappropriate phrase may be cited in an attack or attempt to discredit an agency, but very few (if any) people would search for such a thing.

References to terms like "Maine" and "plumber" would be eliminated over time or self regulated by the search site's minimum click requirements.

Indeed, citing the "child pornography" example match term would only serve to confuse the public and lead them to the erroneous conclusion that the agency was intentionally buying such terms.

It is worth noting the text of search engine advertising listings contained only Maine tourism information. According to Mr. McCartin, the Maine tourism site in question averages 10 minutes per visitor and the paid search click costs average $.51 each.

If the blog doesn't fit, you must…
This is the second example in a month's time of an ad agency being bludgeoned by a blog posting and this trend is likely to continue. The very notion of public consumption and truth in publishing has changed for everyone.

While there are many bloggers out there providing valuable services to their communities, irresponsible bloggers can be the death of responsible journalism, and society is not the better for this sort of abuse. A blog is not a license to defame or otherwise dispose of competitors, ill-witted neighbors or anyone you see as a threat.

Speaking of free speech, trying and convicting anyone with a blog posting will only lead to greater regulation of the space and government action is not only likely but may be inevitable. Bloggers will cry out for free speech when they have to purchase a license to have a blog, but they will only have themselves to blame.

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