Can a competitor use my business name as a keyword search on paid search engine listings?

Now if somebody had said that to you twenty years ago you would have told them to take the medication. And, if you’ve ever tried to wrap your head around 21st century internet advertising you probably felt like you might need the medication too. When a business pays a search engine hard cash to feature its ad and website link beside the results of certain internet searches, based on the words used in those search requests, what happens, and what can you do to stop other businesses using your name in their search engine ad?

There has been a big case on this topic recently in the Federal Court of Australia.1 A business ran paid ads on a search engine and used another business’s name amongst its keywords, and in the headings of the ads. If you haven’t yet dipped your toe into internet marketing, ‘keywords’ are the words or phrases in the search which will prompt the search engine to display your ad next to the organic search results.

Can a competitor use my business name in their Google Ads campaign?

In deciding whether to undertake paid Internet listings using the business name of a competitor, bear in mind the result of a recent Federal Court case, where the court found that the advertiser had engaged in illegal conduct,1 because its paid keyword campaign:

  • infringed the registered trademark of the complainant, by using in its AdWords campaign a sign “substantially identical with, or deceptively similar” to the registered trademarks of the complainant, on services covered by the registration;
  • was misleading and deceptive conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law2; and
  • misrepresented that there existed an affiliation between the advertiser and the business of the registered trademark owner, also in breach of the Australian Consumer Law3.

The Court did however try to draw a distinction between honestly comparing your business with another business and trying to suggest some connection with another business. This article can provide a general guide as to use of sponsored link advertising, but be aware that this is an evolving area of the law.

So if you are selling potato chips, some of your keywords would be ‘potato’, ‘chips’, ‘crisps’, ‘crunchy snack’ and so on. But what about if you are a chip maker who is not Smith’s Crisps, and you include ‘Smith’s’ as a keyword? The Federal Court said that wasn’t a breach of trademark, because the keywords are not visible to users, and are not exclusive to one advertiser. So the chip maker can put ‘Smith’s’ in their keywords.

However, it’s not just keywords that are at issue here. It’s also the wording of the ads which pop up next to the search results. So, imagine that a searcher has put in ‘Smith’s Crisps’ and you have won the weird auction or lottery which search engines conduct to decide which paid advertiser is offering the most money to place their ad next to the search results. The searcher gets a list of websites, with the Smith’s Crisps website at the top of course, and right next to that list your ad appears.

Can your ad say ‘Yummy Chips are better than Smith’s Crisps’? Well, it can, because it is obviously offering a substitute crisp. But if it said something like ‘Yummy Chips, the Smith St Crisp’ because the factory was in Smith St, or used ‘Smith’s Crisps Lovers’ as a headline, that would be too close to the Smith’s registered trademark and would also potentially mislead consumers. It would be a breach of the Smith’s trademark under the Trade Marks Act 1995 and also a breach of the Australian Consumer Law because it is misleading or deceptive.

What Should You Do If Someone Is Using Your Business Name in Google Ad Keywords or Headings?

 You should immediately-

  1. Lodge a complaint with Google. If you have a registered trademark, use GoogleAds’ ‘Complaints- Trademark Violation’ form. If you don’t, use GoogleAds’ ‘Complaints’ form, which you can get online.
  2. Write to the advertiser business and ask them to stop using your business name or product name as a keyword or heading.
  3. If the advertiser business won’t respond promptly, contact us for advice and action on the matter. We could apply to a court for an injunction for you if the matter is urgent.

It’s quite likely you won’t get much joy from Google, as their terms and conditions for advertisers make it the advertiser’s responsibility to comply with the law. Plus Google has not been liable in Australia for what is accessed through its search engine, due to a major High Court case.

This position may change over time, in other cases based on different circumstances, such as in the case still being determined by the High Court against Google for defamation resulting from images wrongly linking a person to a crime. Or new legislation may come in, undercutting so-called ‘service provider immunity’, following new laws in the USA and the European Union.

Google did set up a separate channel for complaints about violation of registered trademarks in 2016 . Only time will tell if that makes complaints more effective for trademark owners. Even if you don’t have much faith in Google, you should still complain promptly so that it’s on record in case Google ignores you and there is legal action down the track.

If you find your business impacted by a competitor using your business name as a keyword search on Google AdWords, please contact us for a confidential and initial no-obligation initial discussion.

References:

  1. Veda Advantage Limited v Malouf Group Enterprises Pty Limited, 2016, Judge Katzmann, Federal Court of Australia.
  2. Section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law contained in Schedule 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
  3. Section 29(1) (h) of the Australian Consumer Law.
  4. Google Inc v Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [2013] HCA 1 (6 February 2013).

 

Disclaimer: N.B. The articles published on this website are general information only and are not intended to be definitive advice on the subject area. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. For legal advice relating to your particular situation, please contact us today and talk to a business lawyer.

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