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Google trademark policy echoes domain name industry woes

Google’s surprise decision to change its trademark policy will effectively remove protection brands have from rivals, or impersonators bidding on their trademarked paid search terms. It’s also expected to have an impact natural search, but that will, naturally, take longer to be felt and may not be quite as obvious as you first think.

Google has justified the move as simply reflecting users’ behaviour, and that it will give the person searching access to far more choice, thereby improving the overall quality of results. However it will present a new brand protection nightmare for companies already facing more, evolving online brand threats than they can shake a stick at.

Having worked with a number of companies, specialising in various aspects of the online brand protection picture I can see a major similarity in what Google is allowing to what has existed in the ICANN governed domain names industry since year dot. There are currently over 150million registered domain names around the world and estimates I’ve heard suggest that around 25 per cent of all those registrations are speculative or opportunistic (by cybersquatters, domain name warehousers and those engaged in kiting). If that’s the scale of the threat, you can only imagine the scale of defensive registrations being made by brand owners where easily more than two-thirds of your portfolio of names could be purely to stop a rival or speculator acquiring it and doing your brand damage.

The domain names industry is that way for a reason – and that’s the relatively loose ‘first come first served’ principle of registrations (for search read: ‘highest bid, first listed’) but until now, with one very major difference – in domain names there is very little practical or enforceable protection for brand owners beyond being first up, whereas in search there was always Google’s common sense.

While Google’s move may help address the slow in growth of clicks on paid Google ads, perpetrated by the search engine’s bid to ensure more relevant, better quality results, it could all too quickly degenerate into the free-for-all model of the domain name industry.

Marketers are already struggling to keep rising paid search costs in check and if this plays out the way many fear it might then likely two things will happen:

1. The current increased interest in natural search will swell dramatically and impact investment in paid search – after all an increasing number of voices are joining the chorus that natural search delivers better quality leads at a fraction of the CPA

2. Major brands will need to agree a code of conduct between themselves to avoid needlessly burning budgets trying to outbid the other’s trademarks and instead focus on dealing with the far more serious threat posed to their brand value by counterfeiters, cybersquatters and impersonators who won’t think twice about taking advantage of the new system.

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