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6 ways you're being scammed through search

6 ways you're being scammed through search David Szetela

According to several search industry research reports, search advertising and search engine optimization activity has grown more than 250 percent in the last five years and is slated to increase $16 billion by the end of this year. The budgets for search advertising and marketing are robust for the most part because these programs pay for themselves and are efficient and fully trackable.

However, the strong growth in search marketing is also feeding the growth of PPC advertising and SEO scams by counterfeiters and unscrupulous competitors. Based on analysis of data from Direct Magazine, 14 percent of branded searches never arrive at the brand's site. While some of the traffic arrives at the sites of legitimate resellers, a significant portion does not. For luxury products, these statistics get worse. A recent audit for five luxury brands found that traffic to sites selling suspected counterfeit goods amounted to more than 45 percent of the search traffic generated by the official brand sites.

As these statistics demonstrate, search marketers must be vigilant to ensure their search strategies are not marred by the activities of the ever-growing league of online scammers. The following article will discuss some of the leading search marketing scams that PPC advertising practitioners and their SEO counterparts should track. We'll also discuss how to combat these common schemes.

Cybersquatting is the practice of registering a domain name that includes a trademark or branded search term to which the scammer has no claim. An unknowing potential customer might assume that this domain represents an official website or reseller for the brand, and could mistakenly patronize the misleading website. Cybersquatting can intercept significant traffic; leading ecommerce brands are often faced with the challenge of battling with hundreds of cybersquatters.

How does a search marketer effectively address cybersquatting? The first step is to pre-empt the cybersquatters by registering defensive domain names. Some of the most popular approaches include registering .org, .net, and .biz variations, but other site owners go the extra mile and register domains such as Brandstore.com or Brandshop.com; in other words, they think like a cybersquatter. It is advisable to make sure that the most likely variations of a company name are registered in the name of that company.

If cybersquatters are causing confusion and generating high traffic at a brand company's expense, it might be time to turn to a professional. Some ecommerce companies use legal professionals, but other ecommerce companies take an automated approach, relying on companies with technology solutions. Companies like MarkMonitor or CitizenHawk might be able to help.

Black-hat SEO tactics
Scammers use black-hat SEO tactics to increase organic search rankings, often at the expense of legitimate companies. Black-hat SEO practices can include placing a trademarked term in a web page title tag or HTML headline to boost page rank, or building a large volume of backlinks to a web page that use branded terms in a variety of ways.

Popular link evaluation tools like SEOmoz's Linkscape or Backlink Analysis tools provide an automated way to investigate backlinks to a counterfeiter's website and stay ahead of counterfeiters and their latest round of activities.

Black-hat SEO techniques are constantly evolving in an effort to stay ahead of the practices that search algorithms detect and discount. This means that effective detection is a constantly changing job. There are a number of SEO newsletters and websites brand companies can use to stay informed of the latest black-hat SEO techniques.

Paid search scams
PPC text ads represent another large arena for scams. These scams occur when a well-known name is used in an illegitimate fashion in a paid search text ad or keyword buy. As a result, paid search scams affect ecommerce in two ways: They intercept traffic that is searching for the legitimate site, and they drive up the cost of a pay-per-click advertising campaign. Often a branded term will be present in the ad copy itself and can lead consumers to sites selling counterfeit goods or to pages associating a legitimate retailer with undesirable or offensive content.

As a side note, counterfeiters will also use common generic terms that an ecommerce advertiser would have an interest in purchasing, thereby driving up click costs and exposing consumers to knockoffs and sub-standard goods. In a study that was conducted during the busy holiday shopping season last year, analysts examined search results for the popular term "designer handbags." A startling 32 percent of paid search ads that appeared on a search for this term led to sites that appeared to sell counterfeit products.

Graphical ad scams
This category of scams is dominated by Google AdSense. Although Google's trademark usage terms are clear about the illegal use of trademarked terms in both graphical ads and keyword buy lists, both trademarked terms in image ads and in keyword lists promote a plethora of counterfeiter sites that leverage branded terms. The only known way to combat this practice is for the legitimate trademark owner to manually monitor sites that might host such ads.

A growing problem, malvertising is a criminal methodology for inserting malicious code into ads through the use of ad networks, exchanges, and social media platforms. Identity theft is most often the primary motivation of malvertising, often through fake ad agency buys. Advertising industry estimates suggested that malvertising on social media networks could approach 5 percent of all ads. Social media platforms are now monitoring for and pulling malvertising ads that often originate from networks and exchanges.

In 2009, Google launched Anti-Malvertising.com, designed to provide publishers with background information that helps them vet which advertisers are trustworthy and reduce the threat of malvertisers. There are also third-party solutions from vendors like ClickFacts and The Media Trust that offer up-to-date applications to address malvertising.

Abuse in affiliate marketing programs
Successful affiliate marketing programs require a clear set of operating conditions and proactive monitoring and management to ensure affiliate activity that does not undercut a brand advertiser. However, there are always new abuses cropping up in affiliate marketing. For example, a recent affiliate marketing scam to infiltrate Facebook preyed on the curiosity of community members as described in a leading search industry newsletter. The scam started with a message posted on a member's wall inviting the user to view "shocking crimes" caught on Google Street View. Clicking on the message directed the user to a rogue application page that mimicked a Facebook request page. The dialogue then informed users that it was sending similar messages to its family and friends. The affiliate marketing scam collected profile information, spread virally, and regenerated next versions of scam messages.

First of all, it is important to know that none of the big-three search engines -- Google, Bing, and Yahoo -- allow pay-per-click ads that lead to sites offering counterfeit or pirated goods. Each of these search engines has posted information within their advertising guidelines or terms-and-conditions sections on how to report these types of offenses. However, the search engines do not police this type of PPC branded term abuse activity. So it is up to the legitimate brand to identify and report the offending advertisers to the search engines.

Advertisers can use a trademarked term in ad copy if the advertiser's site either resells or provides information about the trademarked product, or if it sells or promotes component, replacement, or compatible parts. Advertisers are prohibited from using a trademark in ad copy if the advertiser's site is deceptive. A good example is that of a classic bait-and-switch scenario in which a paid search ad promotes one type of branded product, but the corresponding landing page does not sell that branded product or sells only a competitive brand.

Online scammers are aggressive and savvy in promoting their wares online, but interactive marketers can outwit them with a solid online brand protection strategy that seeks and exposes the scammers. To paraphrase the old adage: You don't need to be faster than the bear, just faster than the ecommerce site next to you.   

There are many websites that contain specifics of the pay-per-click scam threat, including ecommerce associations, publications, blogs, and LinkedIn groups dedicated to the topic of brand protection.

There are also white papers from online brand protection solution providers like MarkMonitor and Citizen Hawk. These solution providers automate the process of monitoring the web for both paid search scams and black-hat SEO schemes, and organize the results in order to report illegal offenders to the search engines.

All the major search engines offer online forms for reporting trademark abuse. Google also has links to report counterfeit goods and copyright infringement/pirated goods. By being vigilant and tapping into these types of resources, you can help protect your brand from the threat of search scams and counterfeiters.

David Szetela is CEO and founder of Clix Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

David Szetela is CEO and Founder, Clix Marketing, a leading PPC Advertising Agency. His most recent book is "Pay-Per-Click Search Engine Marketing." David is a regular speaker at industry conferences including; Search Engine Strategies and SMX...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: David Szetela

2010, November 11

Excellent point, Tom - thanks!

Commenter: Tom Crandall

2010, November 10

The data from Direct Magazine--that 14 per cent of branded searches never arrive at the brand's website is based on a 2006 Hitwise report. Brands that do not protect their trademarks in Google using Sitelink Ad Extensions (PPC ads) likely lose a fifth or more of branded search traffic to third parties, due to the increased competition in the last four years.