A recommendation made by the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) could lead to restrictions on bidding on competitors' brand names and trademarks in Google AdWords.

The adviser recommended that the ECJ should rule against Marks & Spencer for bidding on keywords such as "interflora" as well as variations including misspellings of the trademark and phrase versions including "interflora flowers."

Interflora, who started taking legal action against Marks & Spencer over two years ago, has been unhappy that M&S were paying Google to appear in the Sponsored Links section of the search engine results for its own name. They argued that as M&S' adverts bore no relevance to Interflora, they were taking an "unfair advantage of [their] brand, in breach of trade mark law."

Evidently, the Advocate General agrees, stating that a brand should be allowed to stop a competitor from advertising on its own name as a keyword "in the case where that ad does not enable an average internet user, or enables the said user only with difficulty, to ascertain whether the goods or services referred to in the ad originate from the proprietor of the trademark or an undertaking economically connected to it or from a third party." In other words, if an advert could be confusing and has nothing to do with the brand keyword being searched, then they should not be targeting that particular keyword. After all, a searcher may think that M&S' advert appears when they've searched for Interflora because they're associated with each other or working together.

The potential ruling's implications

The Advocate General's ruling may be non-binding, but it is a signal that the ECJ is likely to lean in that direction and rule in favour of Interflora and against M&S. If so, this landmark case could affect online advertisers throughout Europe when it comes to competing with their competitors' names on Google AdWords.

Bidding on competitor brand terms is not new. In addition to being a practice where one brand might attempt to sway potential customers from another brand, the number of impressions a keyword receives can also provide a valuable insight into the strength and popularity of a brand on a day-by-day basis. For example, as this is typed, Confused.com, Gocompare.com and Comparethemarket.com are all bidding on each other's names:

Brand term bidding

Bidding by accident?

Perhaps the biggest implication is the ruling's effect on accidental brand term bidding. This will be an issue for phrase term brand searches (e.g. "interflora flowers," "confused.com car insurance," etc.) or if a brand's name contains or is made up of a generic product/service keyword.

For example, if M&S' advert appears for the keyword "interflora" then it is obvious that they are bidding directly on their competitor's name. However, if the advert appears for "interflora flowers," is it because they are bidding on that keyword or because they are bidding on just the keyword "flowers" on broad or phrase match? What about companies that have keywords in their name, such as flowersdirect or Flying Flowers?

Interflora's ad showing for a competitor search

The above screenshot shows Interflora's ad showing for a search for "flying flowers," probably because they bid on the keyword "flowers."

Admittedly, Flying Flowers may not be trademarked, but what if it were? Will advertisers be expected to add every single trademarked competitor to their negative keyword list, or only bid on exact match and therefore require an extensive exact match keyword list? Will Google step in and automatically discount popular brand and trademark names and variations? Would it even be able to, without the need to acquire a mammoth list of trademark names?

The impact on Google

Speaking of Google, the ruling will have implications for them as well.

Any restrictions on keywords will result in less money being spent by advertisers, and a restriction on this scale could make a significant dent in the amount they earn from AdWords. If advertisers stick more to exact match keywords, if they are worried about bidding on trademarks via broad and phrase match, they could see even more of a drop-off in the amount of keywords that advertisers bid on.

Is it wrong to bid on competitor brand terms?

Obviously Interflora is pleased by the Advocate General's recommendation, wanting "to protect [their brand] for our customers, florists and the future." But what do others think of the recommendation? Patrick Altoft of BlogStorm argues that it's "a win for common sense. Loads of people bid on competitors trademarks but nobody in the industry really likes it." As mentioned previously however, bidding on a competitor is more than just stealing their traffic: it can give real, accurate data on how many people search for a brand, so this information will be lost as well, with marketers having to rely on Google's Keyword Tool and Google Insights instead.

Evidently it will come down to this: those who benefitted greatly from bidding on their competitors will be unhappy with the recommendation, while those who were taken advantage of (such as Interflora) will consider the potential ruling to be fair and will help them to get the clicks that they feel they deserve.

Either way, it will certainly change the landscape for PPC advertising in the UK and Europe.

As we prepare for the introduction of The Bribery Act 2010, agencies and companies that pursue a paid linking strategy could end up in deep water.

Paid linking has always been a somewhat dubious technique and one that Google specifically singles out as being against their guidelines. The recent action taken by Google against major US retailer JC Penney is a good example of why the use of paid links isn’t a good idea. Following the discovery of a paid linking strategy, Google imposed a harsh penalty on the retailer, seeing their site drop significantly in the rankings.

The new Bribery Act could bring more than just a Google penalty. The bribery law states that an offence is committed by a company when:

• A person "associated" with the commercial organisation (i.e. performs services for it) bribes another person;

• The bribe is intended to obtain or retain business for the commercial organisation or retain an advantage in the conduct of the organisation's business.

In short, it will become an offense for a company to knowingly themselves, or through a third party agency, make payments to a company or individual in order to gain competitive advantage; which is exactly what paid linking is. You are paying someone to link to your site thereby gaining competitive advantage in the search results.

It is important to note that The Bribery Act 2010 was not created specifically to counter paid linking and therefore those using this strategy will no doubt find a way to skirt the wording of the law. Any links promoted as advertising are difficult to pin down as bribery, but greater consideration will now be placed on the wording of link requests. Those posing as expenses may slip through whereas blatant payments for links will stick out like a sore thumb.

Bottom line: if you want to avoid a Google penalty and avoid the long arm of the law then it’s best you stick to links that don’t require payment.

What happens when you put a copywriter, a link builder and a search engine marketer together? You get a kick-ass Go Karting team:

Nathan, Kris and Adam after winning the Cardiff Marketing Agency Go Karting Challenge this week.

Their team, SEOperstars, beat all others, including our second team, The Pay Per Clique, who came in last but one. The reason the other Liberty team finished so poorly? Because this is what happens when you put a social media marketer in a Go Kart:


When Google Instant was introduced a few months ago, there were assumptions early on that the introduction of Instant would have a negative effect on 'long tail' keywords (longer, wordier keywords which receive less search volume), encouraging those making it their SEO or PPC strategy to target these types keywords to change their ways. The general argument was this: if someone is halfway through typing a phrase and they're presented with results, they could be distracted and click on an earlier result, meaning that they will have searched on a shorter phrase.

Fast forward to the present day and the conclusion for many still seems to be to focus on root/head terms more than they might have done previously, and it's true that some long tail has seen a drop or even a plummet in search volume (just look at the month-on-month patterns on "[type] insurance comparison site" searches on Google's Keyword Tool, compared to "[type] insurance comparison" or just "[type] insurance").

Even recently, one of the speakers at the recent SES London event talked about how Google Instant "is cutting off the long tail," as mentioned by an attendee's tweet.

However, one thing we've noticed is that the long tail isn't dead. Far from it. In fact, we've seen some long tail keywords achieve the same or higher search volumes than shorter, less wordy keywords in the same industry since the introduction of Google Instant. Recently we undertook some keyword research for a website targeting "young driver insurance" keywords. What surprised us was how "cheap car insurance for young drivers" had the same number of searches per month as "car insurance for young drivers" (18,100 searches on exact match, respectively).

We also noticed that "cheap car insurance for young female drivers" - a very long keyword - had a respectable 1,000 searches each month, which is more than many other shorter keywords in the same industry.

Notice the differences between them? Our long tail keyword terms have "cheap" in front of them. If we take young drivers for example, a demographic which is often hit with expensive insurance, it is understandable that the young driver's mentality is to start their search with the word "cheap" - perhaps their intended search was "cheap car insurance" and that'll do.

However, as they start to type that phrase...

..."cheap car insurance for young drivers" might catch their eye. They're a young driver, so this suggestion will appeal to them.

Add "for"...

...and more suggestions are thrown up. If they're a young student or a 17 year old in particular then one of the other suggestions might catch their eye instead.

Add "young"...

...and "...young female drivers" is a suggestion. This might explain why that keyword in particular has a surprisingly large volume of traffic - searchers fitting that demographic might not have intended to search on that keyword originally, but after seeing it suggested to them, combined with the fact that it fits their demographic, they've pursued it and chosen it as their search term.

This suggests that the long tail hasn't died off at all, as might have been previously assumed, but what it does mean is that the long tail has potentially changed its form. The start of the tail (i.e. the first few keywords that a searcher types into Google) has become more important, and therefore businesses targeting certain keywords should try to understand the psychology of their customers/searchers. As seen in our example, the young drivers after insurance were searching for "cheap car insurance," not just "car insurance."

However, it can be argued that this hasn't been caused by Google Instant, but by Google Suggest (a.k.a. Google Auto-Suggest), which has been around for years, predating Instant by quite some time. Either way, the most important takeaway is to identify what a potential visitor might be thinking, looking beyond the obvious and expected and trying to think more like the customer - something a bit of keyword research can really help with.

Google has acquired the UK financial price comparison site BeatThatQuote for £37.7m.

The acquisition, which took place yesterday, suggests Google’s desire to strengthen its position in the financial services market. Previously, it has tested mortgage Comparison ads in the UK, allowing searchers to use Google itself in order to compare mortgage rates.

BeatThatQuote, which was founded in 2005, offers loan, mortgage, credit card and insurance comparison services and is in direct competition with major aggregator sites such as Confused.com, Moneysupermarket.com and Gocompare.com.

This development must be worrying for UK financial comparison sites – made up of some of the biggest and most successful sites in the UK – who may be concerned that Google could promote BeatThatQuote’s or its own stature on its search engine, with a greater bias over competing sites. Although Google has most likely acquired the comparison site for its software, which it can then use and fine-tune to better its own Comparison Ads, The Guardian reports that Google may continue to run BTQ as a “standalone brand,” before steering the comparison site towards “increasing tie-ups with the search engine itself.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting and unusual aspects of the acquisition are the observations made by Aaron Wall of SEO Book, who – through conducting some SEO and link analysis – has identified that BeatThatQuote is actually currently violating Google’s guidelines, through grey and black-hat SEO techniques, including buying links that pass PageRank. Was Google aware of this before the acquisition? Will it now penalise its own site? Only time will tell.

It seems no matter what you search on, including the latest single from one of your favourite bands, you will see Ask.com bidding on the search term. But what is going on with this one?

"Birthday Find. Search for Birthday Find Find Birthday Find"

Jeeves, we'd love to know if this strategy is working for you. If it isn't and you want someone to help with your Pay Per Click ads, then all you need do is Ask (sorry!)

We thought our Google AdWords campaigns were running well...until we got the team at Liberty to look over them. They quickly identified a number of areas where large amounts of money was being wasted, as well as many opportunities for low cost traffic that were being missed, so we asked them to re-structure the entire account. Whereas we were spending £17,000 a month on largely irrelevant traffic, we now spend only £4,000 a month yet we get a higher quality of visitor and have seen a large increase in business! This is how online marketing should be done.” - Mark Underdown, Director, Access Training (Wales) Ltd

Access Training, a trades training firm came to us in mid 2010 as they weren’t satisfied with the work that a competitor of ours was doing. Whilst they were averaging just over 100 enquiries a week, their Google AdWords spend was increasing to nearly £20,000 a month and this simply couldn't continue.

The team at Liberty took over the Pay Per Click account and after two days work their spend was down to around £4,000 a month, yet the number of enquiries they were receiving had doubled. Not only that, the enquiries were more targeted, so their sales conversion rate also increased.

Towards the end of last year they also asked us to start on their SEO, where we advised on keyword use and started building links from other training sites. You can now find them organically for a lot of specific local search terms, such as “plumber training Cardiff”, as well as a lot of national search terms, such as “trades training”.

They are now receiving over 500 enquiries a week and are in the process of setting up a call centre to cope with the huge increase in prospects.