SearchTHIS: The Search Listing Quality Conundrum

I hate being right all the time.

Before you dismiss this week’s column as an essay on arrogance, please let me explain. I am not always correct about life decisions and various wireless convergence device purchases, but foregoing a normal life to spend my days analyzing trends in search behavior, search marketing techniques and the millions of interactions for all things “listing” provides me with something of an uncanny ability to identify the ships that will sink when subjected to the slightest ocean breeze, in contrast to the ones that will make it through Hurricane Search.

Last week, the large property and casualty insurance provider GEICO settled a lawsuit with a pay-for-placement search provider for selling their brand name to other advertisers. Also last week, Forbes decided to pull back on serving up paid listings on some editorial pages. These two otherwise small occurrences might just initiate big changes in search.

In any case, don’t say I didn’t warn you, and thanks for sticking around. Here’s the scoop on what’s happening and what you can do to avoid getting sunk in the search marketing perfect storm.

So sue me

Initiating litigation against a search provider is nothing new. Without the slightest memory jog, I can recall the American Blind brand suing Google for allowing others to buy its trademarked terms. Last year in France, Louis Vuitton sued Google and won after competitors purchased brand names. Most of the U.S. law suits relate to brand owners seeking to avoid the inevitable “confusion” experienced when a brand term search occurs and a user is presented with competitor listings.

Confusion? Yes, I am sure that avoiding confusion is the primary concern here.

For the unindoctrinated, here’s how these search and brand name lawsuits typically occur:

  • Brand owner conducts search for self one morning and notices competitors appearing beside their name.
  • Brand owner calls agency and raises holy hell. How dare they do that! Can they do that? Make them stop doing that!
  • Agency then calls search site and suggests the search result is irrelevant and the listings be removed.
  • Desperately trying to avoid laughing in the agency’s face, search provider suggests the listings do not violate any policies so listings can’t be removed.
  • Agency calls client back and proclaims, in disgust, that the publisher won’t remove said listings.
  • Client feels slighted, sends note to legal department.
  • Six months to a year later, it is up to Judge Judy to sort the whole thing out.

Paid search providers make a boat load of cash selling those listings. If I were them, I wouldn’t remove squat unless I absolutely had to, but does that make all search providers evil, malicious, opportunistic profit seekers?

Not necessarily a law breaker

In natural search, there are legal precedents against using competitor names in site code. Therefore, the biggest problem with brand name searches is driven by one of the defining characteristics of paid search. If you want to buy a term, you must have relevant content on your site.

This is not a problem if State Farm Insurance wants to bid on the keywords that contain “state farm.” What if a competing insurance carrier had content relating to a third party’s comparison of insurance carriers? Since State Farm might be mentioned in the context of the study, under the relevancy rule, the competitor could buy the terms “State Farm.” 

There’s no confusion there; the competing insurance provider simply wants to let the world know that a third party has rated them higher than their competing national provider. As long as copy points aren’t misleading users, and the content isn’t violating any laws, that should be allowed, right?

Sue your own affiliates instead

Speaking of misleading users, I really don’t know why more brand marketers in search aren’t just suing their own affiliates. Maybe they are and it isn’t getting much press. If you really want to whine about confusion in paid listings, do a brand search just for fun to see how many affiliates represent themselves in listings as a brand.

While I am on the subject of affiliate marketing, isn’t it slightly contrary to the idea of having affiliates to let them represent themselves as the brands they serve? If an affiliate is simply listing your widget inventory in a catalog format and providing a link back to your shopping engine, then are they really doing anything at all for you? Shouldn’t an affiliate be offering value-based information or a complementary -- rather than a competing -- experience?

I found a great Web site that provides a detailed step-by-step procedure on how to do an Infiniti G35 hardwire install with an iPod. Wouldn’t that site make a great affiliate for Infiniti? There’s a peach of a Web site for a WWII aircraft museum in Chino, CA. Ever been to Chino? Apparently there’s a big prison, this museum, a bunch of farms and not much else. If ever there were a site begging for an affiliate link to a hotel, this was it.

Many paid search sites do not regulate affiliate listings, but at least one, Overture, won’t allow an affiliate to represent itself as the brand they might represent. In my most recent copy of the Overture Advertiser Workbook, the search provider suggests that an affiliate attempting to represent itself as a brand owner will not meet editorial guidelines. If only every search provider would do this -- there would be so much less confusion.

Matchmaker, make me a trademark

Here’s another problem: keyword matching. Matching is a great way to reach out to the universe of searchers; advertisers can ask to appear every time a user’s search includes the word “insurance.” In this manner, insurance company A can appear even when the user does a search for insurance company B, because the query included the word “insurance.”

Often, this brand listing confusion happens inadvertently, as in the advertiser or agency claims to not have known where they were appearing. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a really neat way to abuse a search result and subsequently plead stupidity when caught. Try pleading stupidity the next time you get pulled over for speeding, and please let me know how it works.

Several brands have initiated lawsuits against search sites for allowing competitors to buy branded terms. Some have won, others have lost, but a best practice is to avoid buying competitors’ names by adding them as negatives (removes keywords in question from results), or, on the provider side, to require more strict controls on matching technologies when a brand launches a search.

Why we love Forbes

While on the subject of paid listings, value, and efficiency, my previous prognostication (that placing listings on every inch of otherwise unused site real estate would one day bite us search people on the butt) was right on.

It’s no secret that contextual search listing inventory does not perform quite as well as directive search, but pulling otherwise unnecessary listings off editorial pages is the first example of a big publisher (at least partially) throwing in the towel on contextual search. 

Leaving aside the contextual inventory value proposition and any discussion relating to Forbes content or the motivation for removing the listings, this decision tells a story about the future of search. If there is no value to the user in the presence of contextual listings they will be removed.

Presumably, Forbes wasn’t making all that much money on those listings, so it couldn’t have been too difficult a decision to pull them. The listings simply couldn’t have been doing anyone any good. Add value or be gone. Here endeth the lesson.

I’ll take marketing in Kindergarten for $200, Alex

All things considered, I love your brand. You love your brand. But that doesn’t mean you can keep users from being confused. The general surfing or searching populace will remain confused or befuddled until we make some tweaks in how listings are represented.

Quality, integrity and relevance of search results will help paid search continue on a path of smart growth. Advertisers must consider the impact their paid listings have on users, perhaps before the courts get involved or editors start complaining that once-pristine content pages have started to resemble online flea markets. From what I have seen in the past week, it looks like we are well on the way to creating an effective long-term experience for searchers: court ordered, or user dictated.

About the Author: 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. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.

Meet Ryan at this week's iMedia Agency Summit, December 5-8 and Search Engine Strategies, December 13-16.