Reputation Management: That Brand Thief Stole My Clicks!

You may not be aware of it, but brand thieves are everywhere, lurking in the shadows of sponsored search, working hard to exploit your brand and steal your clicks. Their favorite tactics include hiding in lower positions during off hours, and targeting markets that you cannot see.

Who are these brand thieves? How do they take advantage of brand equity they don’t own? And perhaps most importantly, how can you protect your own brand from the shifty tactics used by these charlatans? Read on.

Advertisers engaged in this practice on sponsored search results may include:

  • Competitors. Usually we find smaller competitors attempting to use your brand to their advantage. They may even advertise that your brand is worse than theirs, with a link to a page on their site that says so, just to get traffic from your good name.
  • Affiliate marketers. Affiliate marketers will exploit your brand attempting to confuse the consumer into believing that they are you—the old mistaken identity trick.
  • Made-for-ads parked domains. Parked domains will exploit your brand to try to confuse the consumer into believing that their web site is endorsed by you and/or that they are an authorized reseller of your products.
  • Spyware/malware/phishing sites. The search engines usually catch these quickly and before they can do much harm. However, spyware web sites will exploit your brand in a similar manner to made-for-ads sites, with the intent of trying to get the consumer believe that your products can be found on their web sites.
  • Shopping sites. Many times when you advertise with a shopping engine, the shopping engine will purchase traffic from the major search providers, directing clicks away from you and then reselling those clicks to you.

It’s important to note these are examples. Not all of the types of advertisers mentioned above are out to exploit your brand.

How do brand thieves operate?

The obvious way is to bid outright on your brand name. Some less obvious methods include:

  • Sponsoring typos or seemingly odd versions of your name e.g. with ‘www’ in front of a keyword or ‘.com’ at the end.
  • Sponsoring brand phrases attaching your brand to a related phrase like ‘shoe-ware Brand’ paired with ’ Basketball Shoes.’
  • Sponsoring non-brand terms, and using your brand in the display URL. Remember, you can structure your display URL any way you want, as long as the root URL lands on your landing page. This means you can create any combination of sub-domains or interior pages as your display URL—and they don’t even need to be real pages. For example: or
  • Sponsoring brand terms, and then limiting targeting options to certain day parts or certain geographic locations to reduce the risk of getting caught by the brand owner.
  • In the special case of affiliate marketers, there is a practice called ‘direct linking’ where the affiliate copies your ad copy text completely, uses your domain as the display URL, then uses their affiliate link as the destination url thereby linking the ad directly to your web site. In this way, the affiliate appears to be ‘you.’ If you and your affiliate are bidding competitively against one another, your affiliate’s ad may show, while yours does not. In order for your ad to replace the affiliate’s ad, yours must perform better, and usually that means you’re going to pay more as you and your affiliate compete for impressions.

How can you protect your own brand?

I wish I could say that you could complain to the search provider, but my experience has been they typically don’t do much to help when you complain about brand theives. First, search providers do not police your brands even if they have strict policies in place, so this means the onus is on you to be vigilant. Secondly, various activities that you might not like—for example, a competitor bidding on your brand name—might not be prohibited.

This leaves you with only one option: You have to patrol and control the market yourself.

To patrol: you could use monitoring software, or do it by hand just for fun.

For control: Strength is in numbers, and owning the shelf is the name of the game. Simply put, you need keep more of the visibility and clicks for yourself while forcing your unauthorized competitors into lower positions on your marquis brand terms and phrases. The only way to do that is to own more page real estate by occupying multiple positions on sponsored search results.

What? But everyone knows that search engine game rules say that no advertiser can occupy more than one position. Yes, that’s true, but also not true—all at the same time. Your display URL can not repeat, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t promote the same offering in multiple positions. As long as the display URL is different, you’re fine.

The best method to accomplish this is to use your affiliates. Your affiliates are your army. You need to empower those affiliates that you trust the most to safeguard your flag, er, I mean your brand. That means allowing certain affiliates to bid on your brand terms, and allowing certain affiliates to say certain authorized things about you in ad copy text. Honor a short list of affiliates by allowing them to bid on your brands, bid on your typos, and use your brand in their ad copy. Help them out with cash incentives, commissions, providing a list of keywords they may use, landing page assistance, ad copy or messaging requirements, and/or coop marketing dollars.

If you own the positions, then no one else can. This is how you reclaim ownership of your brand, controlling your messaging, and ruling the world in a clicks sort of way.

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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