July is the month for fireworks. Not just as an American ritual, but also in terms of search engine queries. There are far more searches for terms like “fireworks”, “firecrackers”, “bottle rockets” and other patriotic explosives in July than in any other month. Just check out the very consistent July spikes in this Google Trends graph:

So, where does that search traffic go? Normally, we might expect these relatively high volume searches (over 2,000,000 monthly “fireworks” queries on Google in the US alone) to become the target of paid search ads. That’s the usual trend with any popular search term.

But these particular goods seem to present a special legal challenge to the search engines. None of them get into too much detail about why, but we did find this statement within Google’s advertising policies:

Google AdWords doesn’t allow the promotion of fireworks and pyrotechnic devices. We’ve created this policy based on legal factors.

You can imagine how an intermediary like Google wouldn’t want to expose itself to firework-related liabilities. After all, there’s a lot more risk potential for an explosive product than for something more harmless like a patriotic t-shirt.

These restrictions also apply to Google’s AdWords search partners (such as AOL and Ask). As for ads on the Yahoo Bing Network, Bing lays out a similar fireworks policy in its PPC rules, but declines to go into detail about what specific products are and are not allowed to be advertised.

Ads Showing Up for Firework-Related Searches

NexTag Uses Fireworks in Ad Copy

NexTag promoting fireworks?

We were curious about the enforcement of these restrictions, so we decided to set up some monitoring and see what we could find. We soon uncovered a good number of advertisers bidding on firework-related keywords and using firework-related terms in their ad copy. Here’s an early example we found on AOL advertised by NexTag, a comparison shopping engine:

This ad was triggered by the keyword “fireworks,” and takes the user to this landing page. The landing page is simply a search page within NexTag’s site—a tactic we commonly see comparison shopping engines (CSEs) using in paid search. In this case, though, the use of that tactic actually seems to indicate a lack of intent on NexTag’s part to violate PPC rules. The tactic relies on broadly targeting a massive set of keywords (probably via an automated bidding technology) and then using Dynamic Keyword Insertion to generate ad copy. Because of the scale of these campaigns, it’s unlikely that the NexTag team was even aware that they were specifically targeting this term.

Except for one little detail. You’ll notice that although the keyword was “fireworks,” the ad uses the term “fire-works” with a hyphen. What compelling reason is there for making that change? Well, you could certainly argue that is a means of bypassing the AdWords system for flagging suspicious ads.

But even if that’s the case, the landing page on NexTag’s site doesn’t offer much resembling actual explosives. Would it actually count as a violation? For a more clear-cut example, let’s look at this ad from Sale Fire:

Firecrackers Ad on Sale Fire

Unlike NexTag’s landing page that merely contained links to loosely related items (including Adobe Fireworks software), the Sale Fire landing page includes Black Cat brand firecrackers in the first row of results. (For some reason, though, the links to those products seem to result in some kind of error and won’t actually load.)

Firecrackers on Sale Fire Landing Page

The links to these firecrackers are broken, however.

Although this infringement was a product of the same broad-scale bidding we noted above, it more clearly goes against the search engines’ PPC rules (since it displays an actual explosive product). Furthermore, just as we saw in the previous example, there might be an attempt to bypass some sort of ad flagging system. Here, the search term “firecrackers” gets rewritten in the ad as “fire crackers” with a space. That certainly seems questionable.

A More Concrete Example: Uncle Sam’s Fireworks

While the paid search activities of NexTag and Sale Fire above are interesting, they don’t provide a definitive and meaningful conclusion. The incentives really don’t seem to be there for these CSEs, so it’s dubious that they intended for this to happen. And we should also probably ask: are you truly promoting the sale of fireworks if you’re providing broken links to products on a poorly targeted landing page—from an ad that may have run accidentally?

So here’s a different scenario where the incentives really do line up. This ad was placed by usfireworks.com on Bing, and appeared in the #1 position:

Advertiser Promoting Fireworks on Bing

It sure seems like Uncle Sam’s Fireworks is actually selling the real deal. Their “Shop Fireworks” section includes all the basics: firecrackers, roman candles, bottle rockets and mortars.

More importantly, this came up as the #1 ad for a search term soliciting the purchase of fireworks. And clearly indicated that it was selling fireworks! If the Bing policies were to include examples of what an advertiser cannot do, this would probably be one of them.

Takeaways from These Findings

The compliance challenges for the search engines really stand out here. These are vastly complex systems that operate at an incredible scale, making compliance all the more difficult. The fact that we found such editorial differences between the ads on AOL, a Google search partner, and the ads on Google itself points to some of the complexity in the system. The same PPC rules apply to both, yet the results were dramatically different.

Furthermore, there isn’t exactly a silver bullet for dealing with these policy violations. Based on the ad copy tweaks we saw from the CSEs, it would be flimsy to simply flag certain words for review. There are so many ways to manipulate the string and bypass the flagging mechanism. Even if the engines started to expand the possible matches, and look for things like “fire-work” or “fire work,” an advertiser could easily just take things a step further (for example, replacing the “o” with a zero). And that’s just looking at variations for a single term! What about all the unknown terminology that advertisers could be using?

Parallels to Trademark Compliance

In our experience, trademark issues are a very similar problem. The search engines are so complex and operate on such a grand scale that we can’t expect them to actively prevent every trademark infringement. After all, we’ve just seen how difficult it can be for the engines to enforce their own, clearly defined policies. If that’s already a challenge, it would be nearly impossible to maintain compliance across thousands upon thousands of brands.

In our view, that confirms the need for monitoring one’s own brand and actively maintaining compliance. The search engines are certainly a helpful resource to that end, but can’t enforce every single rule to perfection.