BrandVerity
 

For many brands, the primary, even sole, concern when it comes to working with a reseller is whether they drive sales effectively. We think, however, that brands should pay almost equal attention to the experience a customer has at a partner website. While working with retailers can be advantageous for a brand, the very real downside is that you have little control over what kind of experience your consumer might have once they reach your partner’s site. The range of negative experiences a consumer might have is vast–from misleading copy to poor customer service or slow delivery times–and these negative feelings may end up reflecting back on you and your brand, rather than on the retailer. Should this happen, the positives about working with a reseller are largely undercut.

Case Study: GoPro

While doing research for this series of blog posts, I set up some BrandVerity monitoring on terms related to popular camera brand, GoPro, and found evidence of exactly this kind of potentially harmful partner bidding. A new retailer website in the current Y Combinator S14 class, Greentoe, is seeking to become something like the Priceline for retail. According to their How it Works page and this TechCrunch article, Greentoe allows a consumer to state the price they are willing to pay for an item and then the company shops that price to a variety of anonymous resellers. If one of those resellers bites, the consumer can get the item for a dramatically lower rate. For the most part, Greentoe is starting out with high-cost, specialist consumer products, dividing their product categories into “Photo,” “Home Theater,” “Baby,” “Appliances,” and “Musical Instruments.” That puts GoPro right in their wheelhouse.

What I found was that during the last two weeks of July, Greentoe aggressively bid on keywords including “gopro,” “gopro.com,” “gopro dealers,” and “gopro coupon.” Often, their search ad would appear in the first or second position on both Google and Bing, either beating out GoPro’s own ad or appearing directly below it.


GoPro_SERP-edit

In the above image, someone is using Google to direct herself to gopro.com (by the way, that’s another blog post entirely—how are brands impacted when someone uses Google as a navigation?) but finds GoPro as well as a retail partner offering 22% off, “Don’t Ever Pay Retail Again”!

Potential Impact on GoPro

This situation is bad for GoPro for a variety of reasons. First, not only have they potentially lost a direct sale, but they’re being severely undercut by their partner. It’s likely that a consumer, even one searching for the GoPro website, will click on Greentoe’s link as well–who could resist such a good deal?! Should the consumer make a purchase there, GoPro will end up losing a direct sale. In this case, the retail partner is potentially cutting into GoPro’s margins without adding any real value.

Second, Greentoe’s website is hardly as glossy and high-end looking as GoPro’s own and its interface, wherein one needs to type a numerical offer and then a pendulum swings to show the likelihood one’s offer being accepted, is clunky.


GoProGreentoe

Add to that the wait time between making an offer and having that offer accepted (Greentoe does not disclose how long that may take), and the added friction for the consumer may thwart a sale entirely.

Greentoe-MeterFinally, Greentoe is itself an affiliate of a few other retailers, including Amazon, Walmart, and Bestbuy. While GoPro itself would not end up paying those affiliate fees, should someone navigate through Greentoe to any of those sites, GoPro will lose out on the direct sale. Greentoe does not offer a link back to GoPro’s own site.

Options for the Brand

The biggest question here, of course, is what can GoPro do about a site like Greentoe? As far as we can tell, Greentoe itself is not a licensed retailer of GoPro products, instead they are a third party site that a) operates as an affiliate of licensed resellers and b) works with licensed resellers to anonymously lower prices for consumers, presumably then getting a cut of the sale. Assuming that is indeed the case, then GoPro itself has little recourse to keep Greentoe out of its search results or require them to change their marketing tactics. One option might be to require that authorized retailers not work with third party sites like Greentoe. Another might be to encourage partner bidding by retailers with whom GoPro has a better, more mutually beneficial relationship.

If there’s one thing this study has proven, it is that it is very much to a brand’s advantage, even if they work with retail partners, to know who exactly is bidding on their keywords, how effective those bids are, and what the content of those ads is. They also would be served by keeping an eye on the landing pages of those ads. For GoPro, the ability to monitor Greentoe’s actions is the only way to take any kind of action against them and protect their brand.

Greentoe does seem to have stopped bidding on GoPro’s terms as of August 2. While we don’t know if that’s because GoPro stepped in or Greentoe simply changed their strategy, we definitely think that GoPro should be pleased. However, as we stopped monitoring Greentoe’s activity shortly thereafter, we don’t currently know if they have resumed the activity.

Thoughts on this kind of new retail site? Questions about the relationship between retail partners and brands? Leave a comment below or contact us at BrandVerity!

handshake

Credit: Flickr

It’s no secret that we’ve been focusing a lot on the topic of partner bidding this month at BrandVerity. Posts so far have discussed important issues such as when partners should or should not be allowed to bid on your brand terms, the dangers of partner bidding, as well as the potential confusion and friction that partners can create.

To this point, our posts have primarily highlighted reseller issues in online retail. But partner bidding affects brands in many industries beyond that. So, to expand the discussion, we decided to highlight the hospitality/travel industry as well. For insights into how these issues affect that industry, we turned to attorney Greg Duff—hospitality industry expert and founder of the Hospitality, Travel and Tourism group at Garvey Schubert Barer.

Remember, these are opinions and insights only—you should always speak to your attorney for advice about your specific legal matters. Without further introduction, here are BrandVerity’s questions and Greg’s responses:


When it comes to hotels’ agreements with Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), is there anything that hotel brands should be more conscious of?

GD: Just about every OTA agreement (and most distribution agreements generally) contain a few key terms that hotels should review and consider carefully. First, what affiliates or third party partners of the OTA may the OTA use for distributing the rates and inventory made available by the hotel? Relatedly, what control, if any, does the hotel have over these affiliates or third party partners, particularly when an affiliate or partner is using the rates and inventory in violation of the agreement? We are seeing a number of traditional static rate wholesalers making rooms (with discounted packaged rates) available on consumer channels on a standalone basis, which is causing a lot of concern.

Second, what commitments is the hotel being asked to make with regard to parity—rate party, availability parity, loyalty program parity, keyword parity, etc.? Third, what, if any, contractual limitations is the OTA willing to consider regarding use of the hotel’s trademarks as keywords on search engines? Will the OTA limit its use of the hotel’s trademarks? Better yet, will the OTA consider use of negative keywords? Fourth, how and by whom are room taxes being calculated, collected and remitted? Is the hotel able to collect (either from the OTA or guest upon checkout) the taxes it needs to satisfy its state or local tax obligations? Will the OTA provide indemnity protection should the OTA take an aggressive stance on taxes?

When getting ready to re-negotiate its terms with an OTA, what should a hotel brand have prepared?

GD: The response largely depends on the relative sizes of the hotel and OTA (and relatedly, the bargaining positions of each). Smaller OTAs are often willing to work with hotels on each of the items noted above and other items as well. Larger OTAs are often unwilling to provide much of any relief. Hotels need to have reasonable expectations going into any OTA discussion and must be able to identify those issues or items that are “must haves” (e.g. connectivity, payment, etc.) vs. “nice to haves.”

In paid search, what should brand-conscious hotel brands do to restrict the use of their brand terms?

GD: The best strategy (though often hard to obtain with the larger OTAs) is to use a combination of keyword restrictions (identify those hotel trademarks or service marks that the OTA cannot use for SEO/SEM purposes) and negative keywords (those few trademarks or service marks that the OTA must purchase on a negative, phrase match basis). Remember, that absent some contractual agreement on this issue, trademark law often affords OTAs broad discretion in purchasing and using a hotel’s trademarks and service marks for SEO/SEM purposes.

How can a hotel brand ensure that its agreements are both A) followed and B) enforceable (if not followed)?

GD: Once the agreement is signed, the real work begins. Our clients use a combination of approaches to monitoring OTAs’ performance under the distribution agreement. Some clients don’t monitor at all and simply rely on someone bringing an issue to their attention. Other client have dedicated employees who monitor compliance—both on rates and keyword provisions. Others use services like BrandVerity to automate the process.

What’s the next marketing channel that hotel brands should be watching?

GD: Great question. The answer to this question varies from week to week as channels come and go. Tingo is one of the more interesting ones that we’ve come across recently. I expect to see a lot of development in the group travel segment in the future, with platforms like Groupize and others gaining traction.

For many brands, sales through retail partners vastly outnumber their direct sales, making partner bidding an essential part of a marketing and sales plan. But is there a point at which that kind of symbiotic relationship turns toward the negative? This post will walk through what positive partner bidding might look like for a brand like this, using Villeroy & Boch, a brand that manufactures fine china, as an example. It will also give a couple of examples of when a brand might want to step in and curtail its partners’ search advertising.

Case Study: Villeroy & Boch

Like many of the brands discussed in this series, Villeroy & Boch sells more product through its retail partners than directly off their website or own retail locations. According to their 2013 Annual Report, their products are available at 5,800 points of sale internationally, including their own website, 155 self-branded stores, 60 factory outlets, and 570 consignment stores run by the brand itself. With the large amount of china purchased through department store wedding registries and the frequent turnover in designs being manufactured, it makes sense for a brand like Villeroy & Boch to encourage partner bidding by resellers, although the company’s opening of several new retail stores in the past year suggests they are well-aware of the increased revenue to be gained through direct sales.

Helpful Partner Bidding

Similar to KitchenAid in the first part of this series, a BrandVerity search for “Villeroy and Boch” reveals that many retail partners, including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Amazon, and Replacements.com, bid on their search terms. The optimal partner bidding situation for Villeroy & Boch looks something like this:


Villeroy & Boch

As you can see in the screenshot, on this Google search for “Villeroy & Boch,” the organic hits yield their own website in the top two positions and the search ads have their website first, followed by a variety of retailers including Macy’s and Replacements.com. If we click through both of those top two search ads, we’ll find that both Bloomingdale’s and Replacements.com direct their consumers to dedicated Villeroy & Boch pages with lists of the various products they have for sale.

While Villeroy & Boch would save money through a direct sale, their partnerships with large, nationwide department store retailers like Bloomingdales and china-specific sites like Replacements.com allow their brand to grow and expand, and they’ll still probably get the sale at the end of the day.

Harmful Partner Bidding

A more negative result arises when partners beat Villeroy & Boch in positioning on the SERP, as seen here:


V_B_Bing_Edit_3

Or when the links in those search ads do not direct a consumer to a brand-specific results page as in this example:


V_B_Bing_Edit_2

In this case, clicking through the Replacements.com link does not take us to a brand-specific page with every Villeroy & Bloch pattern ever manufactured. Instead, it takes us to this page:


Replacements Knife

While the advertised fork is made by Villeroy & Boch, the odds are low that it’s what the consumer was looking for, creating unnecessary frustration for the customer.

Finally, a partner like Replacements.com—which sells not only new merchandise, but also vintage, second-hand, and discontinued products—creates another level of potential downside for a brand. According to the website’s FAQ, customers cannot specify that they want “never used” versus “previously used” china:

Since we inspect and grade each piece for quality before it is inventoried, we do not separate pieces based on new or previously owned status. Rest assured that any piece you purchase from us is fully guaranteed and comes with our 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy.

As a result, a consumer may very well end up buying used products from Replacements.com even if they wanted and were searching for a new product. In that case, Villeroy & Boch sees nothing from the sale. Further, depending on what the consumer wanted or expected, the brand may lose out in both customer loyalty and satisfaction.

What could Villeroy & Boch do?

The frustrating-but-true theme of this blog series is that while there is no perfect solution to the potential issues surrounding partner bidding, constant vigilance is the first step toward minimizing negative impact. In this case, because Replacements.com is a retail partner of Villeroy & Boch (in addition to purchasing product from estate sales and other dealers, the company also purchases directly from Villeroy & Boch), the brand might have more capacity to curb bidding that they feel is not to their advantage. They could perhaps ask the company not to bid on certain terms or require that search ads lead to brand-specific result pages. Another option might be for Villeroy & Boch to encourage partner bidding by retail partners who do always buy directly from them, like Bloomingdales or Macy’s, in order to be sure that they do receive as much profit on a sale as possible.

At the end of the day, the best thing a brand like Villeroy & Boch can do is closely monitor this kind of partner bidding in order to see exactly how others are using their name in advertising. While it’s unlikely that a brand as established as Villeroy & Boch has much to fear from a few badly placed search ads, their ability to remain a leading name in the tableware industry is dependent on simultaneously protecting their customer experience and their profits. Vigilance regarding their resellers’ use of their name is a crucial step in that direction.

What do you think the best practices for a brand like Villeroy & Boch would look like? Let us know in the comments below or contact us directly at BrandVerity!

To say that Seattle loves their football would be an understatement: the Seahawks are basically a religion around here. And, while it pains my San Francisco-born-and-bred heart, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement about football season—and about the Seahawks (just don’t tell my dad!).

But we’re not the only ones getting excited about the kickoff game this week: as we’ve pointed out here, here, and here, big television events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars can bring trademark poachers out in droves as they look to capitalize on the increased searches for these terms. At BrandVerity, we thought the start of football season might have a similar impact and so last week we set up some monitoring to see if we could catch anyone looking to turn an illegitimate profit on keywords related to DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket Package.

Sure enough, we found several interesting examples of brand bidding—much of it by authorized dealers, which raises some of the questions we’ve been discussing in our reseller series. As discussed in the first posts of our reseller series, partner bidding can be a good way for brands to dominate the search results and ensure that when their brand terms are searched, unauthorized sites do not appear among the top hits. Telecom companies, like DirecTV, sell a great deal of product through licensed retailers, meaning they likely allow those resellers to bid on some or all of their brand terms. The downside, however, is a lack of control over customer experience when a consumer navigates through a retailer site rather than through DirecTV’s.


So, what did we find?

DTV-Sales-Ad-Google

Our monitoring picked up several websites bidding on terms related to NFL Sunday Ticket that might raise some eyebrows among executives at DirecTV. In particular, searches for “nflst.directv.com”—the streaming site for NFL Sunday Ticket—brought up some ads that seemed potentially detrimental to DirecTV’s brand and ability to provide excellent customer service.

One ad we found was for a site called DTV-Sales.com, with the headline “Get NFL Sunday Ticket”. This ad directs the user to a landing page that offers a background image advertising a variety of DirecTV packages with an “Order Now” button at the top.


DTV-Landing-Page

Confusingly, there’s nothing you can click on this page except for the “Order Now” button at the top. Since the entire page is a background image, none of the expected website functionality is there—no hover states, no highlightable text, nothing to click. It definitely took me a moment to figure out how to move forward in the ordering process here. And even when you click the “Order Now” button, you get redirected to a site called TVSavingsForYou.com. Despite being an “Authorized Dealer” of DirecTV, TVSavingsforYou.com also creates some friction of its own. You have to hover over a “Save Big” piece of artwork to get a visible mention of NFL Sunday Ticket. Otherwise, the only information about NFL Sunday Ticket is buried well below the fold in an section that’s easy to miss (it isn’t even pictured in the screenshot below).


Dealer-Landing-Page

Another search for “nflst.directv.com” pulls the following ad from a site called DirectStarTV.com:

DirectStarTV-Ad

It’s also an “Authorized Dealer” of DirecTV and is offering NFL Sunday Ticket as part of the packages it sells.

DirectStarTV-Landing-Page

These two sites (DTV-Sales and DirectStarTV) also appear on searches for keywords such as “nfl sunday ticket,” “nfl sunday ticket package,” “dtv nfl sunday ticket,” “nfl sunday ticket cable,” and “DirecTV sunday ticket special.” DirectStarTV, in particular, often shows up in the 1st or 2nd ad position.

Because both sites are authorized dealers of DirecTV products and they are advertising that NFL Sunday Ticket is included in certain packages that they sell, their bidding on brand terms is legal according to Google’s policies and likely according to DirecTV’s as well. But, a few red flags do pop up regarding these sites and their bidding activity from the perspective of DirecTV’s brand protection and customer satisfaction.


What are the potential problems here?

Friction for Current Customers

The first problem that comes to mind with sites like DirectStarTV and TVSavingsForYou bidding on DirecTV’s terms is the potential for friction. One instance of this friction is the confusion for existing DirecTV subscribers—specifically those who stream football games via nflst.directv.com. Let’s say a DirecTV customer, in an effort to log in and start watching a game, typed the URL “nflst.directv.com” into Google by accident. What would they make of an ad placed by one of DirecTV’s dealers? There are a few potential outcomes:

  • Scenario A: the customer simply ignores it
  • Scenario B: the customer notices the incentive offered in the dealer’s ad, causing them to question the value they’re getting from DirecTV as a direct customer
  • Scenario C: the customer notices the incentive offered in the dealer’s ad, causing them to pursue the offer and try to switch their service

While Scenario A would be relatively benign, Scenarios B and C could actually be quite harmful for DirecTV. They hurt brand image, discourage customers from purchasing direct, and complicate the buying process to the point where the brand may be unnecessarily competing with itself. These complications can result in increased cost-per-sale and lost subscribers. Those outcomes aren’t great.

Friction for Potential Customers

What if the person searching for “nflst.directv.com” wasn’t already a customer? What if they were interested in signing up for DirecTV’s streaming service? In that scenario, the dealers’ ads cause even more friction!

It’s unlikely that someone interested in streaming would want to purchase from one of these dealers. These dealer sites are promoting DirecTV television and internet packages—they are not offering the streaming service at all. At best, the prospective customer would probably ignore the deal. At worst, they may end up signing up for something that’s different from what they wanted—which can lead to all sorts of issues down the road. Ultimately, a customer who ends up on one of these sites looking for NFL Sunday Ticket streaming will likely leave disappointed and frustrated.

But let’s say that a customer is looking for the television service only. Perhaps she searched for one of the other terms on which these ads appeared like “dtv nfl sunday ticket”. Would she be satisfied with the service offered? The answer is a maybe, at best. These sites can sell her a television package that includes NFL Sunday Ticket—but only if she’s a new customer to DirecTV. If she’s an existing customer looking to add the package, these sites will direct her back to DirecTV.com to complete the transaction. (It doesn’t appear that these sites direct the user back through an affiliate link, but there may be some kind of referral tracking in play.)


Existing-Customer-Page

If indeed she is a new customer, she still cannot buy DirecTV’s services online through this dealer—she needs to call them and complete the transaction over the phone or enter her information into a lead generation form so that they can call her. From where I stand as a consumer, this added step would likely frustrate me and keep me from purchasing through one of these sites, although many customers may complete their transactions this way. It is, of course, difficult for DirecTV to monitor what the customer experience might look like on that phone call and a less-than-stellar experience could negatively impact customer retention and loyalty down the road. The company will also end up paying a commission on a sale they could have made directly.


Do authorized resellers and dealers always have your best interests in mind?

One of the particularly interesting things that came up in the course of our monitoring is that Direct StarTV is a “Preferred Online Retailer” of DirecTV, along with three other websites. According to DirecTV, these retailers achieve this status “because of their commitment to DIRECTV’s high customer satisfaction standards.” All four of these sites operate on the same basic model as Direct StarTV, in that they sell DirecTV packages over the phone or ask the customer to fill out a lead gen form so that they can get in touch later.

Of the four preferred online retailers, two were actively bidding on terms related to NFL Sunday Ticket over the past two weeks, including searches for “nflst.directv.com”. While DirecTV clearly knows the basic model of these sites and approves of it, I do have to wonder if they’re aware of how and how often these sites are bidding on brand terms in paid search—and how often they’re bidding on terms for products they don’t sell. DirecTV’s must find partnering with these sites to be beneficial, but are they also aware of how this kind of partner bidding can increase friction for sales, produce negative customer experiences, and drive up the cost of their keywords? If they aren’t thinking about these issues, they may want to do so—and consider revising their terms of service with these partners.

Thoughts on these kinds of telecom partner relationships? Questions about how to track this kind of partner bidding? Predictions about the upcoming football season? Leave your comments below or contact us at BrandVerity.

The issue at the core of partner bidding is the lack of control that brands have to enforce rules and regulations regarding how resellers use their brand terms. This blog post will look at what harmful partner bidding most often looks like and begin to explain the options a brand has to protect against it. Future posts will go into more depth about industry specific types of problematic partner bidding and the steps that a brand can take to minimize the impact.

For a moment, let’s summarize our KitchenAid example from the previous post. That example showed us what seemed like an ideal situation for the brand. In it, the resellers’ ads had the following characteristics:

  1. appeared below the brand’s own ad on the SERP
  2. provided a link to a brand-specific product page, and
  3. gave the consumer a positive customer experience.

A less ideal–or even downright bad–situation looks more like this:


KitchenAid-Bing

In this case, a search for “kitchenaid.com” (spelled correctly even!) on Bing resulted in an ad for PartSelect.com at the top of the page. In this case, we see someone using a search engine as a navigation tool but the first hit she sees is not the website for which she was looking. That’s not a great situation for KitchenAid: they should want their ad to hold that top spot.

What makes it worse is that while PartSelect.com does sell KitchenAid products, they don’t sell basic consumer appliances–which are probably what most people searching for KitchenAid are looking for. Instead, they sell parts to fix one’s KitchenAid appliance. If that is what the consumer is looking for, great; if not, he or she may come away feeling frustrated at the experience.

An even worse example can be seen in the following image:


KitchenAid-mixer

In this case, someone searching for “kitchenaid mixer” on Bing gets four search ads above the organic results–and only one of which is a retailer of KitchenAid mixers. Both PartSelect.com and SmallAppliance.com sell parts, but not mixers, and Calibex.com is a comparison shopping engine, leaving only the Macy’s link as a true reseller of KitchenAid consumer products.

The downsides are numerous for KitchenAid in this instance: competitive bidding increases the price of their keywords, customer satisfaction and loyalty will decrease, the increased friction may lose them a sale entirely, and the list goes on. While there are advantages to allowing partner bidding by reputable retail channels, there needs to be a coordinated process so as to filter out negative results like those shown above.

So why isn’t this just standard trademark poaching?

A lot of brands probably see this kind of keyword bidding as exactly that: incontrovertible trademark poaching. But it’s not really that simple.

First, the terms of service enacted between resellers and brands often don’t include restrictions on bidding on brand names. And, as mentioned in our first post on this topic, there are good reasons to want at least some of your resellers to bid on your terms, so putting those kinds of terms in your agreements requires careful forethought.

Second, because these sites are indeed selling KitchenAid products (albeit, not the exact ones that a consumer is searching for), in Google or Bing’s eyes, these companies are entirely in the right–they sell the relevant brand, therefore they can advertise it and bid on brand terms. The fact that the brand might feel differently (is selling KitchenAid parts the same as selling a KitchenAid mixer?) has no bearing on the search engines’ policies. Google, for example, clearly states that if “The ad’s landing page is primarily dedicated to selling (or clearly facilitating the sale of) the components, replacement parts, or compatible products relating to the goods or services of the trademark” then it is allowed to use a brand’s trademark in its ad text.

Ways to Prevent Harmful Partner Bidding

So what can a brand do? Monitor, monitor, monitor. Knowing what keywords are being bid on by partners allows a brand to alter both their own bidding in paid search and potentially change terms of service agreements with resellers when they come up for renewal.

Do you encounter this kind of partner bidding? What’s your technique for encouraging positive and avoiding negative partner bidding? Let us know in the comments below or contact us directly at BrandVerity!

When it comes to brands that that both sell their own products and work through retail partners, issues surrounding brand bidding can be complex and confusing. While we have written about these issues before, both in our Report on Hotels, OTAs, and Paid Search and in a blog post we published in January, the fact of the matter is that there is no single answer or absolute best practice. On the one hand, resellers bidding on a brand’s terms allow that company’s products to dominate the search results and increase the chance of a sale. On the other hand, partner bidding may cut into profits and potentially harm your customers’ experience with your brand. Direct sales may be lost, customers could have negative experiences on your resellers’ sites, and resellers may even make false promises in their advertising.

This post is the first in a series that will delve into this issue a little more deeply. We will explore the question we posed earlier this year–“when is it okay for resellers to bid on your brand terms?”–in hopes of suggesting some best practices. Posts will approach this question from a variety of industry angles, including consumer electronics, fashion, housewares, and telecom.

In this first post, I am going to lay out some of the broad issues pertaining to partner bidding as well as provide examples of the most common, uncomplicated things we see in the course of our regular monitoring.

What does partner bidding usually look like?

Let’s say I’m looking to buy a new KitchenAid mixer for a friend’s wedding this summer. I type “kitchenaid mixer” into Google and get the following ads at the top of my results page:


KitchenAid

The first listing is for KitchenAid’s own website, directly linking me to their mixer order page. The next two ads are for KitchenAid authorized retail partners: Macy’s and Lowe’s. Both links take me to the respective retailer sites, with the Macy’s site filtered for KitchenAid and the Lowe’s site listing KitchenAid products ahead of other competitors.

So what’s the problem?

In this case, there technically isn’t one. The above result is just about the best case scenario for partner bidding: KitchenAid’s own site is ranked first, followed by authorized, comparably-priced retailers highlighting their brand. Any competing brands are shut out of the results and KitchenAid has a fairly high chance of converting a sale.

There is, however, a potential downside for KitchenAid. For one, the company may miss out on a direct sale, potentially minimizing the efficiency of the sale and directing customer loyalty toward the retailer’s brand rather than their own. Additionally, because Macy’s and Lowe’s (as well as many others) are bidding on their brand, PPC costs for KitchenAid are going to increase.

When can partner bidding go wrong?

Although the impact of partner bidding on the brand is fairly neutral in this case, a variety of other issues can crop up around partner bidding that are far more complicated and can potentially do substantial damage to a brand. Here are just a few questions to consider:

  • What happens when a partner outbids a brand?
  • What if the partner makes misleading claims in their ad copy?
  • If the partner’s landing page is not brand specific?
  • If the partner provides a poor customer experience?

The upcoming series of posts will provide examples of many of these scenarios and dive deeper into their potential impact on your brand, as well as offer some suggestions on how to monitor this activity and minimize its negative effects. If there are any specific questions you have or topics you’d like to see covered, let us know in the comments below or by reaching out to us!

As you may have seen, Google announced last Thursday that in late September they will be doing away with the option to disable close variant keyword matching on exact and phrase match keywords. In brief, marketers could previously target their ads to exact strings that people search for—or to particular phrases that people include in their searches. Now, the only option is to also target what Google calls “misspellings, singulars/plurals, acronyms, abbreviations, accents and stemmings,” when using exact and phrase match. TechCrunch offered a good overview of the change shortly after it was announced. Generally, the announcement has garnered some negative reactions among marketers as illustrated in this Marketing Land post, which highlights various responses to the new policy.

But what will the impact of this change be for our BrandVerity clients, or for other brands seeking to limit paid search abuse? This post will briefly detail what this change might mean for a variety of different scenarios and then suggest some ways to minimize the impact when this new policy goes into effect in September.


Affiliate Marketing

The implementation of this policy may have a two-fold effect on relationships with affiliates. First, there is a possibility that legitimate affiliates who have been bidding on permitted keywords will unintentionally see their ads showing for forbidden terms until they modify their AdWords campaigns. Second, if a blackhat affiliate was successfully avoiding detection by using particularly strange misspellings or variations on brand terms, this change might expose such an affiliate. For example, the exact match for “hountar boot” will now also match to “hunter boots.” If you’re already using a comprehensive paid search monitoring tool like BrandVerity, we wouldn’t expect you to see a big upsurge here since these blackhat affiliates have most likely been reprimanded or removed from your program. However, if you’re not you may see a substantial increase.

The good news is that Google has kept the precision of exact and phrase match for negative keywords. While most of your affiliates were probably already using negative keywords to avoid bidding on forbidden terms, there is the possibility that they were not doing so on campaigns that were set to ignore close variants or that new negative keywords will be needed to address this issue. We recommend sending out a policy update or notification between now and late September to alert affiliates to this policy change and to encourage them to rework their campaigns with the appropriate negative keywords in order to remain compliant.


Third Party Trademark Abuse

When it comes to 3rd party trademark abusers such as search arbitragers, it’s likely these websites were already using close variant match. Even so, this new policy might result in more of these sites popping up in search ad results with your brand name in their ad copy. Fortunately, you can report this kind of abuse to the search engines and have these ads taken down. If you’re a BrandVerity client, we have a custom set of processes with Google to take down these interfering ads.


Resellers, Partners, and OTAs

If you work with resellers, marketing partners, or online travel agencies (OTAs), they’re probably already bidding on your brand terms unless you have specifically restricted that practice in your agreements with them. If you do not have an agreement in place, this new policy probably won’t change the bidding you’ll see, though there might be a slight uptick in the number of close variant matches you see. If you do have restrictions in place, again, this is a good time to send out a reminder of your terms and to make sure companies are using negative keywords appropriately. Either way, this could be a good moment to consider your contracts with OTAs or resellers and whether you might want to restrict their ability to bid on your terms. (We’ll be publishing a blog series on this topic in the next few weeks! Stay tuned to this space!)


Comparison Shopping Engines

One thing we’ve noticed at BrandVerity is that Comparison Shopping Engines (CSEs) often use exact and phrase match in their ad campaigns. This change will probably increase the number of CSEs you see bidding on your terms as their exact matches become less precise. If you have a working relationship with CSEs, we would recommend that, as with affiliates, it would be in your best interest to make sure your agreements with them are clear and to send out some kind of reminder notification regarding what keywords they are and are not allowed to bid on as well as to encourage them to make good use of negative keywords. In the future, you should also consider adding new negative keywords to your agreements with CSEs.


Conclusions

The final concern for any brand that uses paid search marketing is the potential for cost per click to go up and clickthrough rate and efficiency to go down. While Google claims that this policy change will allow companies and brands to reach more customers in a simpler, more efficient way, there is definite skepticism among expert paid search marketers. The final impact remains to be seen.

We don’t expect the implementation of this new policy to dramatically alter the behaviors of affiliates, partners, and other paid search marketers, but it’s always good to use moments like this to take stock of your policies and agreements and to remind your marketing partners of those agreements. Please let us know your thoughts about Google’s decision in the comments below and contact us if you want more information about ensuring compliance and protecting your brand as this policy goes into effect.

Update 8/25: Bing announced today that they would start including close variant matching for a portion of their searches.  Although the service is now set as the default option, marketers may still opt-out.  Search Engine Land provides a good summary of the update and a walk-through of how to opt-out should you want to do so.

Ginny Marvin recently posted a fascinating article over on Search Engine Land. Her piece focuses on the issues that arise when users search for customer support on Google and Bing. In particular, it deals with searches where people are looking for customer support from specific brands.

“Bank of America support” and “AT&T customer service” would be examples of these searches. They each include a brand name in the search, indicating that the customer is looking for a solution specific to that brand. But what happens when people actually make these searches? What does the user actually see? The article goes on to highlight that the engines aren’t exactly consistent in how they treat these searches. Sometimes Google will show a knowledge graph with the brand’s official customer service line. Other times, Google will actually show ads—including ads from third parties (not just from the brand).

What Types of Advertisers Are Showing Up?

Typically, the advertisers behind these ads fall into a few different categories:

  • The brands themselves
  • Authorized third-parties
  • Unaffiliated third-parties

That third category is of particular concern for brands. If these third-parties have no relationship with the brand, why are they advertising on these searches? Furthermore, where are they directing searchers—and for what purpose?

The Search Engine Land article provides examples and poses some valuable questions. I’d like to expand on those findings here and explore some of these third-party ads in further detail. Once someone clicks on one of these third-party ads, what happens next? Let’s walk through some examples!

What Are These Unaffiliated Third-parties Doing?

While monitoring a set of branded keywords related to customer service and support, we noticed an interesting trend. Many of the advertisements claimed to provide customer service phone numbers from major brands. These ads would generally include a term like “phone” in their domain name, and we typically found them running in the UK. Here’s one example that was placed by a site called “connection-directory.co.uk”:


O2-Brand-Abuse

Notably, this ad outranks the knowledge graph phone number for O2. This third-party ad is right there, front-and-center at the top of Google. It’s the first thing that the user sees after conducting their search. If that placement wasn’t enough to earn the click, it’s also worth considering that consumers don’t always expect brands to provide the most useful contact details. The fact that sites like GetHuman even exist is a sign that brands are a bit hesitant to publish their best customer service numbers in conspicuous places. In this scenario, the knowledge graph number may just be another frustrating phone tree maze—so what’s there to lose by clicking on Connection Directory’s ad?

Let’s assume that someone clicks on the ad. What’s next? Do we end up on a site that’s similar to GetHuman, one that helps consumers find the best side door to get in front a company rep? Do we just get the same phone number that showed up in Google’s knowledge graph? Let’s take a quick look at the landing page from this ad:


Connection-Directory

Well, we do get a phone number here, so that’s a start. Plus, this phone number is different from the one we saw in Google’s knowledge graph. That’s some added value, right? Not so fast. After running a few Google searches for the number provided, it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere other than on a few caller ID lookup sites. If this number were truly associated with O2, shouldn’t it be showing up in a few more places? At the very least, it could be buried somewhere on a forum.

Let’s Figure Out What’s Really Going on Here

This finding made us curious, so we started investigating a little further. It wasn’t long until we happened upon a very intriguing section from Connection Directory’s About Us page. The passage says the following (emphasis added):

Upon calling one of 0843 numbers you will be connected to the company or organisation you have searched for. The cost of the call will be 5 pence per minute when called from a BT landline. Please note that extra charges may be incurred when calling from mobiles or other networks.

The choice of “connected to” seemed a bit off here, especially when “extra charges” were also mentioned. If this were truly O2′s official number, shouldn’t it either be toll-free or a standard rate? Why would there be extra charges? And if the call is being “connected”, is it not going directly to O2?

The Smoking Gun

Now that our suspicions had grown, we were on alert for anything that might help put together more of this puzzle. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for us to find a more illustrative and egregious example. The key piece of information is on the landing page associated with the ad (which I’ll share below). But first let’s take a quick look at the ad that led us to it:


Ulster-Bank-Abuse

And now, the landing page:

Ulster-Bank-Abuse-Landing

£1.53 per minute? That’s pretty much unheard of! And all of that is just for a “connection service” that has nothing to do with Ulster Bank. The site’s disclaimer makes it quite apparent that it has no real association with the brand:

Easyphonenumbers.co.uk is a directory enquiries service and is not affiliated with Ulster Bank, we are a directory enquiry and connection service only.

Even in the best case scenario, the connection service simply bridges the caller over to Ulster Bank’s official line (and charges them a pretty penny). In other cases, it may divert the caller elsewhere or simply keep them on hold at a premium rate. None of these outcomes are positive for the customer—and by extension, they aren’t for the brand either.

Steps that Brands Should Take

What can a brand do here? For starters, they may want to run some manual searches for keywords related to customer service and their brand name. We’d recommend trying at least the following out:

  • [Brand] support
  • [Brand] customer support
  • [Brand] customer service
  • [Brand] customer service number

If the brand finds anything of concern from these checks, they should reach out to Google and Bing with the examples (screenshots and ad click URLs would be particularly helpful). While the engines don’t explicitly discuss these types of ads in their trademark policies, these ads would certainly seem to be misleading to the point where the engines should consider taking them down.

As an additional measure, if it’s possible to trace calls back to call forwarding or connection services, brands should try to identify the numbers that are sending those callers over to them. With that information, one could look up the referring phone numbers to see if they were associated with premium charges. It may also be worth reporting these advertisers to PhonePayPlus, the UK’s governing body for premium rate calls.

Plenty More to Uncover

Of course, this post only discusses one way that brands are being targeted on customer service related searches. It’s also limited to the UK. That being said, the findings here would suggest that there’s more to explore in this area—especially when it comes to protecting brands and their customers.

There are certainly other countries to investigate further, and there may be new schemes to track down as well. We’ll look to follow this post up with some additional findings as they become available. In the meantime, we’d love to hear about any experience you may have had with this or any similar schemes. Feel free to comment below or reach out to us directly!

AM-Days-Logo

Everyone enjoys being recognized for the work they do, and here at BrandVerity we’re no different! We’re thrilled to be one of ABestWeb’s “Best Of’s” for 2013, taking home the prize for “Best Affiliate Tool.” Some excellent technology services were nominated, so we were honored to be chosen.

While we always love to hear that our technology is making affiliate marketing a little better, this award is particularly meaningful because it’s voted on largely by affiliates and affiliate managers. Although BrandVerity’s services may seem most applicable to big brands, we believe that they benefit everyone within the affiliate marketing space. We especially liked Michael Coley’s explanation that while “it might be easy to assume that only the merchants benefit from the services [BrandVerity] provide[s], but as affiliates we indirectly benefit as well. The cleaner an affiliate program is, the more we as affiliates are able to earn with it.”

We think of ourselves as an ally to ethical affiliates for exactly the reason Michael states: a clean program means more commissions go to the people who really earn them.

Thanks again to ABestWeb and its voters as well as a hearty congrats to the nominees and winners in the other categories.  Extra kudos to our friends Wade Tonkin at Fanatics.com, Jeannine Crooks at Affiliate Window, and Greg Hoffman for their well-deserved recognition!  A full list of winners is included below.

Announcing the Winners – “Best of for 2013″

Best Affiliate Program in 2013 – Santa Claus Christmas Store

Best Affiliate Manager in 2013 – Wade Tonkin at Fanatics.com

Best Affiliate Tool in 2013 – BrandVerity

Favorite ABW Member in 2013 – BanggoodAffiliates and carpeperdiem

Best Network Rep in 2013 – Jeannine Crooks at Affiliate Window

Best Affiliate Network in 2013 – ShareASale

Best OPM in 2013 – Greg Hoffman Consulting (GHC)

Rexanne Mancini ABW Legend Award of 2013 – the late, beloved, Rexanne Mancini

We were recently featured in a piece on the CPC Strategy blog! The post focuses on the third-party trademark abuse that we find in paid search, explaining some of the negative impacts this has on retail brands (and others).

You can see the full post here. We recommend checking it out!

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