Display URL: Traffic Tricks Used By Brand Hijackers

The display URL is the part of your ad copy text that tells consumers where they will go if they click on your ad. Therefore, it is a very important tool for branding yourself, as it is how consumers will recognize you in list of sponsored results.

Each of the major search providers typically enforces the following rules with regard to the format of display URLs:

  • The top level domain of the display URL must match the top level domain of the ultimate landing page (excluding redirections e.g. for tracking URLs).
  • The display url can be a sub-domain e.g. ‘something.topleveldomain.com’
  • The display url can be an indexed page e.g. ‘topleveldomain.com/something

Brand hijackers

In this article,  the term brand hijackers means any advertiser using another advertiser’s trademarks without permission. For example, an advertiser who is not an obvious reseller or company affiliated with the brand holder.

The display URL is an excellent place for brand hijackers (“BrandJacker”) to exploit your brand, as well as the credibility and trust you have built with consumers. Brandjackers will attempt to disguise the display URL  causing its listing to appear to be you. I have noticed the following tricks deployed by brand hijackers in order to divert traffic to their own web pages using your brand as a lure.

Trick #1:  sub-domains

This method is where the brandjacker uses your brand as part of a sub-domain so that at a glance the display URL appears to be yours or endorsed by you. Sub-domains are allowed by all three search providers. The landing page rule is not broken because the top level domain of the display URL and the landing page DO match. There are several techniques used here:

  • Brand appears before the ‘dot’. Display URL example:  chuck.99-styles.com
  • Brand appears before the ‘dot’ and top level domain is an offer for something free or for a discount or deal.  Display URL examples:
  1. fisher-price.now-at-low-prices.com
  2. playstation3.price-discounts.com
  • Your complete URL appears before the ‘dot’ in the display URL. URL structure example:yourdomain.com.topleveldomain.com

Trick #2: mis-directed display URLs

This method is where the BrandJacker uses your domain as the display URL, so that the ad looks 100% like your ad, but then sends the traffic somewhere totally different.

We find examples of this type with large retailers like Walmart being exploited. Here is a live example, if you run a search for the keyword ‘ walmart‘ or ‘ wal-mart‘, you may find ads that look something like these:

Wa‍lmart – Official Site Your Source for Top Brands & Much More at Wa‍lmart Now! Walmart.com

ShopWal MartTM On-Line Save Today At Wal Mart .com Shop Our Official Online Store Now www.walmart.com

The display URLs in the above ads clearly indicate that the advertiser is ‘Walmart’.  A consumer will click on these ads expecting a Walmart web site. That is not what happens. When a consumer clicks on these ads, the consumer may land on a web site that offers one of the following user experiences:

  1. A site which collects consumer email addresses. The landing page looks like it belongs to Walmart – it has Walmart colors, logo, and a mocked-up giftcard that looks like a Walmart card. It promises $1,000 for free. To get started, you need to provide your email address.  There is a disclaimer on the web site in small print that tells you the site is not endorsed by Walmart:
  2. “[site name removed] is an independent rewards program and not associated with any of the above listed merchants or brands. The above listed merchants or brands in no way endorse or sponsor [site name removed] ‘s offer and are not liable for any alleged or actual claims related to this offer.”
  3. Another site which also collects consumer email addresses. The landing page looks like it belongs to Walmart. However, this site is not walmart.com as promised in the ad copy text. The logo and colors match what you would expect, there is a lady jumping across the page holding shopping bags with the Walmart logo on the bags. To get the giveaway you need to provide your email address.

Although the search engines have rules that require the display URL to match the top level domain of the landing page, clearly in the above examples the rule is being skirted. To avoid the rule, the brandjacker may initially point the ad to the matching top level domain site, using a redirect tracking link as the destination URL. Next, as expected the search engine’s editorial bot will crawl the ad to confirm that it complies with its top level domain policy. The brandjacker waits until after the editorial bot has crawled the ad. Once confirmed that the ad has been crawled, the brandjacker switches where the redirect URL points so that now the redirect URL lands traffic on the brandjacker’s web site instead.

What can you do?

If your brand is being used in the display URL without permission, you can complain to the search provider. Most of the trademark policies do not cover the display URL. Your strongest arguments will be editorial rules that guide what can and can’t be used in the display URL. For more ideas on what you can do, The Search Monitor has published a white paper available for download: a Step by Step Guide to Combat Trademark Abuse on Paid Search, which provides a list of ideas to help you to stop these types of tactics.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Brand Aid | Channel: Strategy


About The Author: is CEO of The Search Monitor. The Search Monitor is an ad monitoring platform which provides precision intelligence on SEM, SEO, PLAs, Shopping, and Display ads.

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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    Hi Lori – Great article! We continue to encounter these types of issues with SEM in general and often it really dilutes a company’s brand and sometimes can even confuse potential clients. Often many times if you own a trademark for a brand and have deep pockets and/or good legal teams you might have a fighting change on the SEO side of things…anyway I will be sure to check out the white paper you mentioned as well. Thanks!

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgWg3KXQ1zU Brand Brand

    It seems like this should be illegal. This is the sort of loop hole that will probably get closed up soon.



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