Trademark owners have long been annoyed by how other people and companies use their trademarks online, and one particular source of annoyance is with Google's "AdWords" program.
The issue: Who can use a trademark as a Google search term, and who can use that trademark in a Google search ad?
These questions raise interesting legal issues that courts continue to address. But Google's position is, for the most part, clear. And it's all spelled out in Google's "AdWords Trademark Policy."
Still, confusion often arises because Google draws a distinction between whether the trademark is used as a search term or whether it appears in a Google AdWords advertisement; whether it appears in a link (URL) in the advertisement; whether the advertiser is a reseller of the goods or services bearing the trademark; whether the advertiser provides an informational site about the trademarked goods or services; and where the advertising campaign is targeted.
In other words, Google's policy may be clear -- but it's not necessarily succinct.
And, Google is hesitant to take action, as the search engine leader has made clear:
Google takes allegations of trademark infringement very seriously and, as a courtesy, we investigate matters raised by trademark owners. However, because Google is not a third-party arbiter, we encourage trademark owners to resolve their disputes directly with the advertisers, particularly because the advertisers may have similar ads running through other companies' advertising programs.
Still, Google takes the following approach to trademarks and AdWords -- at least for ads targeting U.S. users -- in response to objections filed via its Trademark Complaint Form:
- If the trademark is simply being used as a search term, Google says that it "will not investigate or restrict the use of trademark terms in keywords, even if a trademark complaint is received."
- If the trademark appears within the ad text, Google says that it "will investigate and may restrict the use" of the trademark. However, resellers and informational sites (as defined by Google) may be allowed.
- If the trademark appears only in a link (URL) in the Google ad, Google says that it "will not investigate and restrict use of the trademark in display URLs because the presence of trademarked term within a URL may not necessarily constitute trademark use, such as in the case of post-domain paths or subdomains."
- If the trademark appears in an "organic" Google search result (that is, not an advertisement as part of Google's AdWords program), then Google says that trademark owners must "contact the site owner directly."
Clearly, Google is not eager to restrict its advertisers' activities (after all, these advertisers are Google's prominent source of revenue), though it will do so under limited circumstances.
A trademark owner's best approach to dealing with problematic Google ads is to evaluate the scope of the problem; complain to Google when appropriate (but be sure to provide accurate information or risk getting no help from Google -- or, even worse, see your own ads removed); and contact advertisers directly (because Google's complaint process is not the only course of action).