06 Mar 2014
We’re excited to announce the launch of our new custom processes with Google and Bing! These processes enable us to provide feedback directly from the search engines about the status of your trademark complaints, giving you better visibility into your results whenever you report a trademark violation through our system. Our hope is that these new improvements will make it easier than ever to protect your brand from third-party trademark abusers in paid search.
Here’s a quick rundown of what’s included with the update:
One of the most frustrating things about sending a trademark complaint to the search engines is not knowing what happens to your request. Now, with this feedback from the support teams at Google and Bing, you’ll receive confirmation when a trademark violation has been taken down. This will be reflected with a “Taken Down” icon in our reports.
In the event that the engines decide not to take the ad down, you’ll get a response from them explaining why they’re still allowing the ad to run. These responses can provide some useful insights to help shape your future requests, getting you better results in the long run.
These enhancements extend to the other engines in Google and Bing’s respective search networks. That means we’ll collect feedback for any trademark violations you report appearing on Google, Bing, Yahoo, AOL, and Ask.
We also group the trademark complaints by search network. Complaints about ads that appear on Google, AOL and Ask are routed to Google’s Advertising Legal Support Team. Complaints about ads appearing on Bing and Yahoo are routed to representatives from the Yahoo Bing Network. One added benefit to this is that an ad will get removed on all the related engines—even if we only caught it appearing on one.
We already store copies of all the complaint letters you send through the BrandVerity interface. Now, we’ll also store the responses that you receive from the search engines. We collect this in one place and thread the messages together, making it easy to check the status of your trademark complaints—whether you sent them yesterday or a year ago.
We’ve already launched our custom process with Google and its search partners globally. That means this feedback is available for trademark violations appearing in any of the countries that we search from around the world. Our process with the Yahoo Bing Network has been rolled out for ads appearing in the United States and Canada, but we’ll look to expand that coverage soon.
Brands who use our Send to Engine tool are already experiencing solid success rates and collecting valuable feedback. If you aren’t using the tool yet, we certainly encourage you to join them and start protecting your brand from third-party trademark abuse. Feel free to reach out to us and we’ll help you get started.
Posted by Sam Engel in Affiliate Tactics
27 Feb 2014
The Oscars are fast-approaching and will air this Sunday, March 2nd. Web searches for related terms tend to spike in the days leading up to the show, and this year seems to be no exception. Just check out this Google Trends graph and you can see the uptick starting to form.
So, noting the influence that The Oscars have on searches, we decided to start some monitoring and follow up on our post from last year. The ads probably haven’t hit their peak yet, but we’ve already found a particularly interesting example that we wanted to share. Here’s an ad that we found showing up on Bing:
Initially, we suspected that the ad would take you over to a toolbar download page or illegal streaming site populated with ads. We typically encounter sites promoting the “Television Fanatic” toolbar and the “Bring Me Sports” toolbar on these types of searches. We also find advertising-heavy sites that are hungry for pageviews.
But in this case, the ad actually takes you to a sparse landing page with some generic copy about watching the awards online. The page seems to be centered around two basic calls to action—a somewhat spammy text link and an image link that mimics a video play button. The landing page is actually just the site’s homepage, so you can check it out here. If you’d rather not give their site any traffic, here’s a screenshot of the landing page:
It’s worth taking a moment to inspect the image link a little more. First off, it’s made to appear as though it’s a video embed. (In fact, it actually looks quite a bit like the design that ESPN once used for its WatchESPN service back when it was called ESPN 360.) If you came to the site expecting an actual video stream, you’d probably go right for that link—much to your disappointment.
What’s more misleading is that this ad started appearing on February 24th, a full 6 days before The Oscars. So, let’s say a searcher types “Oscars” into Bing, unsure of when the show is actually going to air, and then clicks on LiveOscarsStream.com’s ad. They then click on what looks like an embedded video stream—only to be taken elsewhere.
So, where does that click bring the visitor? If you test any of the page’s links, you’ll be taken to a signup page on the site. The signup page actually uses the HTML “frame” tag to load in a payment form hosted by the affiliate network. Instead of a video, you get asked for your credit card. That’s not a great experience.
There are two sides to this issue: A) Is this something the merchant allows? and B) Is this something that the search engines allow? Based on last year’s analysis, the answer to the latter is almost certainly “No.” So we’ll focus on the answer to A.
What’s the merchant’s stance here? While the affiliate’s tactics are unsavory, none of that matters if the merchant permits them. We decided to check into the merchant’s policies and see what position they take. Here’s the most relevant passage we found:
(f) You will not use the names, trademarks and/or logos of content providers, including but not limited to broadcast or cable television channels (e.g., ABC, CBS, FOX, TBS, AMC) or movie channels (e.g., HBO, SHOWTIME), or the name, titles, trademarks and/or logos of programs, including sporting events, teams, and their owners (e.g., NFL, MLB, NBA) (collectively, “Prohibited Terms”).
It seems that The Oscars would fit into the “programs” part of the passage. And although it’s never good to see examples of affiliate non-compliance, the merchant’s foresight is definitely a positive here. At least they’re anticipating the ways that an affiliate could mislead customers.
Interestingly, after checking DomainTools to learn more about the affiliate’s site, we learned that the site has only been around since last Friday. It was created on February 21st of this year, so it seems to have been made purely for the purpose of poaching traffic and manufacturing illegitimate commissions.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a set of similar sites pop up over the next few days. We’ll make sure to continue monitoring the terms and update this post if we find any new ones engaging in these tactics.
Valentine’s Day sure seems to bring out the creativity from paid search teams. Maybe it’s easier to stand out when so many advertisers are using the traditional jewelry and chocolates narratives, or perhaps it’s just fun to manufacture relevance to the topic of love.
Either way, after monitoring a set of Valentine’s Day keywords over the past week, we felt the need to share some of our favorite ads. Here are our top 8, in no particular order:
Does your significant other have spartan tastes? If so, you might want to cut the sappy stuff and grab him a “Mancrate”—a kit packed with manly goodies such as beef jerky, beer paraphernalia, or knives.
Out of ideas? Let your loved one get something for him or herself! Western Union seems to be offering a free transfer fee in the UK today.
If you’re still searching for that special someone, you’re free to stop by Culinary Dropout’s Singles Awareness Day event (AKA “SAD”). Is this a viable option, or is it just mean?
Perhaps it’s comforting to know that Mario or Princess Peach will always appreciate you?
What guy wouldn’t want to smell “Dangerously Sophisticated”? The only question is whether the colognes are shaken or stirred.
It’s not so much the ad that makes this great, but the offer itself. M&M’s will let you make a personalized set of candies to celebrate with your Valentine, which we think is pretty cool.
I don’t know what to say other than that I love the sassy copy of this ad.
We’re not trying to be gender biased here, we promise. It just so happens that there were far more absurd ads promoting gifts for men. As if the Mancrates and 007 Fragrances weren’t plenty, here comes the Popcorn Factory with its bacon popcorn. It almost seems that most of the bacon sold these days is for novelty purposes.
If you saw any humorous Valentine’s Day ads in the wild, we’d love to hear about them.
This year’s Super Bowl broke a record for online streaming. More people than ever chose to watch the game online, with an average of 528,000 devices tuning into Fox’s online broadcast each minute.
Similarly, the demand for a live stream of the Super Bowl seemed to skyrocket this year. The volume of streaming-related searches increased about five-fold on Google. Check out this Google Trends graph for the keyword “super bowl stream”. There’s a huge spike in February 2014—overshadowing everything from previous years.
So what were all these searchers finding on their SERPs? In the time leading up to Super Bowl 48, we monitored a variety of keywords related to watching the game online. Among the results, we found a number of ads promoting illegal streams of the game. Here’s a screenshot from one of our tests that includes three questionable ads right at the top.
These domain names should immediately raise some red flags. Forced keywords and a plethora of hyphens are not exactly the makings of a trustworthy site. It’s also worth noting that the third ad’s copy uses a zero instead of an “o” in “Super Bowl”. That’s a common tactic that malicious advertisers use to avoid getting flagged for trademark abuse.
As I moved to these ads’ landing pages, I found even more cause for concern. Here’s the destination of the first ad from the SERP:
Why would I have to download a toolbar to watch the video stream? Is a toolbar even capable of that? My guess is that the toolbar has no live stream functionality at all. The site is probably just making whatever case it can to get the toolbar downloaded. If a visitor is desperate or in a rush, this might be enough to motivate an install. And if the site is getting paid for each of those installs, that’s all it needs to care about.
By conducting a quick search for the the “BringMeSports toolbar”, you’ll find that the majority of people are looking for a way to uninstall it. This indicates that its promotional tactics are misleading or downright deceptive. Most users were probably duped into downloading it in the first place. Of course, some of that may be due to aggressive software bundling or another practice. But based on what we see here, I imagine that paid search abuse is at least a partial culprit.
As streaming becomes more and more popular, we expect this abuse to grow. More searches mean more opportunities for malicious advertisers to grab traffic. Furthermore, the search engines can’t be expected to police this. There are plenty of legitimate ways for a third-party advertiser to use “Super Bowl” in their ad copy (for example, sellers of Super Bowl merchandise or an informational site on the history of the Super Bowl).
Fortunately, there are definitely ways to combat such abuse. The ads we saw were in clear violation of the search engines’ trademark policies—and most likely their editorial policies as well. By proactively monitoring for these types of terms, a brand owner would be able to report these violations and get the offending ads taken down. As fans of the Super Bowl, we hope the NFL takes steps to combat this abuse next year!
29 Jan 2014
Yahoo made an interesting move a few years ago by introducing branded favicons for certain paid listings. The concept made a lot of sense at the time (and to this day). Not only would the new visual element encourage clicks—it would also add a level of trust for the searcher. Considering the potential for brand confusion with search ads (via tactics like ad hijacking, search arbitrage, and various other forms of trademark abuse), this was a win-win for brands and consumers alike. Brands could make themselves stand out. Consumers could be assured that they were heading to their intended destination.
Eventually these ads became known as Rich Ads in Search. A number of formats were added, and in 2012 they were expanded to Bing search as well. These new formats include additional features such as deeplinks, images and even video. All of them follow the same core principle: create additional brand authority on the SERP. Overall, that’s great for brands. But what happens when an affiliate takes over and hijacks a brand with these Rich Ads? Here’s an example we found on Yahoo of an affiliate directly linking to a merchant’s site using Rich Ads:
In this case, the extra branding on the SERP has a negative impact for the merchant. By attracting more attention to the ad (and likely more clicks), the affiliate can skim away extra commissions on these searches. What was originally intended to improve the brand’s presence in PPC is actually being used against it!
The affiliate seems to be specifically targeting variations of the brand’s domain name. Compare the affiliate ad from above with the brand’s actual ad below:
A few differences immediately jump out. First off, the brand’s ad includes deeplinks. It’s unclear why the affiliate would pass these up—but it’s certainly possible that they simply haven’t updated their ad in a while. After all, the second obvious difference between the two ads doesn’t suggest much attention to detail. The affiliate’s ad copy touts a “00% Satisfaction Guarantee” (not exactly the world’s most enticing offer) as opposed to the “Quality Gift Baskets from $24.99″ that the brand itself promotes.
You can test this out yourself by swinging over to Yahoo and searching for “Gourmet Gift Baskets” and then for “gourmetgiftbaskets.com”. The first search should show the brand’s ad. The second search should show the affiliate’s ad, complete with the “00% Satisfaction Guarantee” copy.
Although it may be tempting to make snide remarks about the error, I think it’s actually more interesting to consider what issues this ad could pose without the typo. Sure, 0% satisfaction doesn’t reflect very well on the brand. But what if it had indeed said 100% and a customer decided to take them up on it? While in this case the brand actually supports such an offer, this could really start to get ugly if they didn’t. The brand would potentially be on the hook for a guarantee that they never promised.
When Bing rolled out Rich Ads in Search (RAIS), it limited them to a subset of premium advertisers. That restriction alone should be enough to prevent affiliate hijackers from abusing brands via RAIS. Notably, we didn’t find any Rich Ad hijacks for this particular brand on Bing. But on Yahoo, it seems that we have a very different story (barring the unlikely possibility of this affiliate being a premium advertiser).
If you were under the impression that Rich Ads were handled the same way on Yahoo as they are on Bing (an assumption which I mistakenly made), this is some unfortunate news. Yahoo is not safe from RAIS-based abuse. Furthermore, if Bing follows suit with Yahoo and opens them up to all accounts, we could really start to see some rampant abuse. After all, Rich Ads must be quite attractive for affiliate hijackers. They increase brand recognition and encourage additional clickthrough, drawing free organic clicks away from the brand and enabling a blackhat to insert their affiliate link in the process.
Posted by Sam Engel in affiliate marketing
22 Jan 2014
2013 brought a number of interesting twists and turns for the affiliate marketing industry. We experienced the abrupt shutdown of the Google Affiliate Network, some tough new questions to answer about disclosure, and even a public denigration of the entire industry as a “scam”.
On the flipside, there were significant steps towards industry progress. More people started to rethink attribution, including Affiliate Window in their whitepaper and RhinoFish on Acceleration Partners’ blog. We also saw some ground re-gained in the affiliate Nexus Tax struggle, with the Illinois Supreme Court ruling that such a law was unconstitutional.
We’re excited as we look ahead to what the industry can accomplish in 2014. Important values such as transparency and accountability are becoming a great emphasis across the world of affiliate marketing. This was apparent to us during Affiliate Summit at the Pinnacle Awards, with accolades going to some outstanding individuals and companies who exhibit integrity and dedication to the industry’s advancement. We at BrandVerity are honored to be recognized among them.
To collect some industry focal points for 2014, we caught up with several of our fellow Pinnacle Award recipients. We asked each to respond to the question “What do you want to see the industry accomplish in 2014?” We appreciate their answers, and once again would like to extend our congratulations to all the Pinnacle Award winners!
“I want a greater awareness of ethics, standards and practices among affiliate program managers. We need to protect the interests of the merchants and the affiliates, while delivering as many new profitable customers as possible.” -Greg Hoffman, Greg Hoffman Consulting
“I would like to see the affiliate industry bridge the gap with bloggers and other content generators in 2014. I think that this will require the networks to develop tools that meet the content generators where they are comfortable—in their WordPress or other CMS dashboards, and using other tools that make it easy for content generators to quickly and easily share affiliate links to specific products or pages to their blogs or to social media followers.” -Wade Tonkin, Fanatics
“I’d like to see more transparency. For all networks, sub-affiliates and tools to provide an easy-to-use interface for program managers to see exactly who and how they are promoting said merchant’s offers. That would help with identifying unethical folks and better rewarding value add partners.
It would also be great to have a positive resolution to the “advertising tax” issue so any affiliate partner can work with any merchant.” -Kush Abdulloev, VMInnovations
By and large, their responses reinforce our optimism in the industry’s outlook for 2014. There are a number of hurdles to overcome, of course. But overall we see the industry converging on transparency, an improved public image, and a clearer value add.
We’re incredibly honored to be chosen as the Service of the Year for the second year running. From everyone on the BrandVerity team, thanks for your support!
07 Jan 2014
Outside of the typical affiliate scenarios, there are plenty of other cases where marketing partnerships can run into brand bidding issues. Whether it’s hotels and OTAs, product manufacturers and retailers, or brands and franchisees, there’s really no perfect answer. Some brands may welcome it as a means of dominating the search results—others might consider a form of brand poaching. Regardless, I figured I’d call attention to a new example of partner bidding that I noticed over the weekend.
I happened upon this while conducting some research about ISPs in my area. Right now I’m preparing to switch to a new internet provider, so my research included a fair number of branded search terms. When I searched for “CenturyLink internet”, I found a few interesting results:
At first glance, the top ad seems like it was placed by CenturyLink itself. After all, it includes the brand name right in the URL. However, further inspection reveals that this is not the case. If you look up “buycenturylink.com” in DomainTools, you’ll see “Domains By Proxy” as the domain’s owner. By comparison, other domains with CenturyLink in their name (such as centurylink.com) return “CenturyLink, Inc.” in their WhoIs records. Furthermore, the ad in question leads to this landing page:
Notice the “Authorized Sales Agent” text below the CenturyLink logo. Despite how much buycenturylink.com looks like CenturyLink’s official site, it’s a separate entity. The same “Authorized Sales Agent” artwork also appears on usdsl.com—the other advertiser I highlighted in my search results screenshot—as well as on usbundles.com (another advertiser I found).
I can’t be sure whether these particular examples would count as violations of CenturyLink’s partner program. These sites may be well within the terms of their agreements. However, coming from the customer side of this experience, I have to say I was a bit confused. I wanted to go directly to the brand, and the ads didn’t make that pathway very clear. The experience left me wondering: at what point do partners, resellers or affiliate ads on the SERP create more friction than value?
Posted by Sam Engel in affiliate marketing
18 Dec 2013
Earlier this year, the FTC released an update to its .Com Disclosure Guidelines. The document expanded the applicability of the original guidelines to new marketing channels such as blogs and social media, and has some interesting implications for the affiliate marketing industry. We interviewed Eric Goldman about these implications. And more recently, industry veteran Tricia Meyer wrote a piece in ReveNews where she identified affiliate managers as the party that’s primarily responsible for affiliate disclosure.
Curious about how merchants and affiliates were responding to the guidelines, we decided to check Twitter for affiliate activity and disclosure. We monitored for a specific set of Tweets that mentioned the term “coupon” somewhere in their content, included an affiliate link (for any of a handful of top-selling merchants), and that were not Retweets. Tweets needed to meet all three of these criteria in order to be counted.
Our monitoring ran from November 15th through December 5th, covering Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Once we collected our data set, we combed through it for any Tweets that included some form of disclosure. For example, hashtags such as #ad or #afflink are appropriate methods of disclosure. So is the string “Ad:” at the beginning of a Tweet. The following sample Tweet illustrates affiliate disclosure quite well:
— Dannielle Cresp (@danniellecresp) November 26, 2013
So, how well are affiliates keeping up with affiliate disclosure on Twitter? While our study cast a wide net by looking for Tweets with the term “coupon”, our other criteria filtered down the results very significantly. Ultimately, we were left with a pool of 449 Tweets that directly linked to merchant’s websites through affiliate links.
And of those 449 total affiliate Tweets, zero included any sort of disclosure at all. Not a single Tweet included “Ad:”, #ad, #afflink, or any other obvious variations. None of the Tweets even included #spon, a hashtag shorthand for “sponsored” that has been deprecated by the FTC.
While our study may not have been exhaustive, it doesn’t reflect well on the industry’s FTC compliance. The FTC is reasonable, as Tricia Meyer points out in her post—if you have a few low-volume affiliates who occasionally fail to make the appropriate disclosure, you may not end up getting investigated. But if your affiliates are consistently avoiding disclosure in social media, you may be exposing your company to a significant risk.
And as more time passes following the release of the FTC’s latest .Com Disclosures, there may be less leeway for brands. The FTC may soon expect brands to have established some standards and protocols. And at that point, a 0% disclosure rate on Twitter may prove that a brand has not taken reasonable measures to ensure compliance. Therefore, it would probably be beneficial for brands to take a proactive approach sooner rather than later.
Posted by Sam Engel in Affiliate Tactics
04 Dec 2013
Online merchants were promoting deals in full force earlier this week, leading to a record high for Cyber Monday sales. That uptick should provide many eCommerce companies with a significant holiday boost. But at the same time, the increase in demand carried some questionable (and potentially costly) affiliate behavior with it.
After all, Cyber Monday is probably the busiest eCommerce day during the busiest time of the year for eCommerce. The high volume of sales—fueled by deep discounts—creates an incentive for affiliates to employ non-compliant tactics. A blackhat affiliate stands to gain quite a bit if they can work their way into just a tiny fraction of those abundant sales. And in some of our investigatory Cyber Monday monitoring, that’s exactly what we found.
Both of these are ad hijacks, meaning they go through affiliate links before redirecting to their respective merchants’ websites. And both attempt to garner clicks by promoting Cyber Monday offers. The first, targeting Saks Fifth Avenue, produces a rather convincing ad that’s indistinguishable from the merchant’s regular ads. The affiliate quotes the actual discount percentage offered by Saks on its landing page, includes an ad extension at the bottom of their ad, and even uses the trademark symbol to make the ad look more official. The result is an ad that’s not only enticing to click on, but also difficult for an affiliate manager to catch.
Alternatively, the Best Buy hijacker presents us with a more suspicious-looking ad. The brand name is not displayed prominently. The ad is missing punctuation. “Sight” is incorrectly used instead of “site”. It would certainly raise some red flags if it were seen by an affiliate manager or PPC marketer. However, the likelihood of searchers clicking on the ad is less certain. It’s possible that they might pick up on the same red flags—but would they be paying as close attention as marketers?
Regardless of how enticing each of these ads is to the user, it’s clear that the affiliates behind them are specifically targeting Cyber Monday as a hijacking opportunity. Considering that Cyber Monday only lasts a single day, it must carry some significant financial potential if affiliates can justify making ads especially for it (as opposed to engaging in run-of-the-mill hijacking). The high volume of sales probably has a lot to do with that. Not only are there more opportunities to hijack, but it might also be easier for affiliate hijackers to hide.
Aside from the hijackers, we also found some interesting ads placed by coupon sites. While there are certainly some legitimate ways for coupon sites to help promote brands on Cyber Monday, the methods we found were questionable at the very least. For example, take the ad at the right for promopanther.com.
This ad does very little to indicate that it will take the user to a coupon site. There is no mention of “coupon” or “promo code” in the ad copy. Outside of the curious display URL, the ad doesn’t even mention where it will take the visitor. Instead, the advertiser seems rather interested in keeping these details vague—perhaps with the hope that the words “Cyber Monday Lowes” will entice the user to click. And strangely enough, if one does click on this ad, one simply ends up on promopanther.com’s homepage. There’s no landing page specific to Lowe’s. In fact, upon further investigation, it’s unclear whether there were ever any Lowe’s deals posted on the site at all.
Let’s look at another example from the site CouponClickClub.com. This ad does a similar job of being vague and avoiding coupon-related terminology. Furthermore, it even takes things a step further by mentioning “Free Shipping” at the end of the ad. Why would a coupon site promote free shipping? Have you ever seen a non-merchant promoting free shipping before? There’s the outside chance of a coupon that grants free shipping—but no such coupon exists on the ad’s landing page. Instead, CouponClickClub seems intent on imitating NoMoreRack in order to boost its traffic.
Are merchants’ standard affiliate agreements enough to cover Cyber Monday? Sure, our hijack examples could have been prevented with the use of negative keywords on brand terms. But should affiliates be allowed to directly link to merchants’ sites on keywords like “Cyber Monday” or “Cyber Monday deals”?
Furthermore, what role should coupon sites play in merchants’ Cyber Monday promotions? If a merchant is offering sitewide discounts, does it make sense for a coupon site to advertise the promotion on the merchant’s branded keywords? As Cyber Monday continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how compliance evolves with it.
The holiday shopping season can be a great boost for merchants, but it’s not without its compliance challenges. Because of the tremendous uptick in demand, affiliates have more incentive to employ non-compliant tactics. Furthermore, since affiliates know that merchants’ marketing teams will be swamped, they might be expecting to get away with such violations.
This got us curious about what tactics we might find, so we ran some preliminary Black Friday monitoring for a selection of branded keywords. In the process, we encountered a rather strange ploy. It involves a collection of domains that reference and imitate popular brands. The basic formula is [BrandName]blackfriday.net for the domain, along with a website design that includes the brand’s official logo. Take, for example, this ad and subsequent landing page for a site called bestbuyblackfriday.co.
So, what’s the purpose of this site? Based on the domain, it would seem like the advertiser is trying to poach some traffic from Best Buy. But to what end?
Well, if you scroll down on the landing page, you’ll find an affiliate link (pictured at the right). The link belongs to LinkShare affiliate 74V3jETE6hM and leads to a pre-Black-Friday sale page on Best Buy’s site. The link is the first in an array of other images, each of which highlights some upcoming deals at Best Buy. Most of these appear to simply be screenshots taken from Best Buy’s own site—or perhaps some sort of Black Friday flyer. Interestingly, only a couple more of these images serve as affiliate links. The rest simply lead to pages with full-size images.
Although the affiliate activity on this site is rather limited at this point, it will be interesting to see how this changes over the next few days. As we approach and then experience Black Friday, the affiliate will probably have more deals that they can link to. We may start to see those affiliate links pile up as new images on the site. Similarly, we may also observe increased paid search activity by this affiliate as they try to lure in visitors (and thus commissions).
The affiliate is also running a series of nearly identical sites targeting other brands, so we’ll be sure to monitor those as well. That should give us a much better understanding of this tactic over the next few days. But regardless of what those results end up being, this example should certainly underscore the significance of compliance during the holiday shopping season. With so many transactions on their way, there are many ways for blackhat affiliates to get creative and slip by unnoticed.