PPC 101: A 5 Minute Guide to Detecting Online Brand Abuse

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PPC 101: A 5 Minute Guide to Detecting Online Brand Abuse

Brand abuse is very common online, especially in Google AdWords. Illegal resellers and fraudulent websites may be abusing your brand without you knowing it! Brand abusers often use branded keywords to redirect your potential customers to their own websites; which can damage your visibility on Google, as well as your reputation in general.

Using the competitive landscape of several fashion companies, I will demonstrate what brand abuse looks like in search and how brands can detect it quickly.

Google Doesn’t Protect Your Brand in AdWords Anymore

Since April 2013, any advertiser worldwide is allowed to show ads on any word or phrase in Google, including a competitors’ brand name. For example, Xbox can show ads to users who are searching for PlayStation, Mercedes can show ads on Audi searches, and etc.

This is an opportunity for competitors to steal your visibility, your traffic, and even your revenue. And Google can’t do anything about it. It is now up to each company to protect its brand against brand abuse in AdWords.

Discovering Brand Abuse in 5 Minutes

According to Retailfraud.com,  MarkMonitor’s statistics show a loss of over US$350 billion in online brand abuse in 2013, with 53 billion visits to rogue sites and 14 percent of branded paid search traffic hijacked.

The good news is that online brand abuse can be easily detected. Here is a 5 minute guide to detecting online brand abuse:

Hoosh BrandWatch Brand Abuse

Image credit: www.hoosh.com

What are the 6 Steps to Follow?

1. Develop a Plan

To fight online brand abuse, start by developing a plan of attack. First of all, examine previous threats: what are your company’s vulnerabilities and what kind of abuse has it suffered from in the past? You should then gather and calculate available resources: how much time and money does your company already spend on brand protection online? Once your brand protection plan is in place, be prepared to adjust it because you may come across online brand abuse you did not know existed.

2. Use a Tool

Consider a brand protection tool which could actually save you time and money. Use a platform that searches the web sufficiently to provide you with precise analytics on the status of your brand. If someone is betting on your branded keywords, you may want to see it immediately.

The tool I used to conduct the following competitive analysis is called Hoosh BrandWatch and it was developed by Hoosh Technology, my employer.  The platform is self-managed and customizable, which allowed me to select a set of branded keywords that were the most searched and competitive keywords for each of the following brands: Gucci, Guess, and Hugo Boss.

3. Monitor the Environment

Everything happens quickly in the world of search marketing. A website you didn’t even consider as a competitor may start abusing your brand unexpectedly. With brand abuse so common, you need to monitor your competitive landscape at all times. Use your competitive intelligence tool to keep an eye on your environment in search.

Since the beginning of this year, I have been monitoring the competitive landscape of three fashion brands in the UK, continually tracking their branded keywords. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the newcomers in each market.

The graph below shows the domains entering Gucci’s market over a one month period. This feature came in handy to discover new potential brand abusers.InsideIndustry NewcomersGucci

Image credit: http://ii.hoosh.com

The tool I used (our own) also allowed me to drill down to keyword level, showing me the share of search of the top competitors on each keyword. I was also able to see which websites had paid visibility on each keyword, as well as a reproduction of the ads running for each domain.

For example, the image below shows which websites held a share of paid visibility on the keyword “Hugo Boss” from July 17th to August 16th.

InsideIndustry Hugo Boss Keywords

Screenshot taken 17/08/2014 of http://ii.hoosh.com.

4. Discovering the Brand Abuse

While I was tracking the competitive landscape of the three fashion brands mentioned above, I have discovered that some competitors may have been bidding on branded keywords without the brand’s authorization! However, it is up to the brand itself to determine if the search activity is fraudulent or not, given that each company should know who is allowed to use its branded keywords, and who isn’t.

Here are some examples of suspicious activities I came across in my search for brand abuse:

Resellers who pretend to sell the brand:

Online resellers sometimes try to lure potential customers to their website by bidding on branded keywords, when in fact these online resellers don’t even sell this particular brand. This is a type of PPC abuse. Let’s say I’m looking for a Gucci purse. I type in the keyword “Gucci”, I’m taken to an online store that doesn’t actually sell any Gucci products. Bummer!

With the competitive intelligence tool that I used, this kind of abuse was easy to detect.  I simply checked the list of domains that had paid visibility on Gucci branded keywords, and then manually looked through each website to see who didn’t in fact sell Gucci items.

Brands who bet on other brands’ keywords:

Some competitors in your industry may actually be using your branded keywords to attract potential customers to their website. If they are in the same line of business, this means that the customer may just end up buying their product instead of yours! This is also a type of PPC abuse. For example, if I am still looking for that Gucci purse, but I land on Prada’s website, I might just buy a Prada purse instead!

Spammy websites who just want the traffic:

It is frustrating to search for something and land on a page that looks interesting in the search results, but the website ends up being useless. This is spam. Spammy websites can try to steal your traffic by brand jacking and/or cybersquatting, which is usually easy to spot.

A spammy website may also sell counterfeited goods, which is much harder to determine. For example, if I search for “guess shoes”, I could end up on a shady website with a domain name that has the word “guess” in it, and that seems to be selling Guess shoes at an unbelievably low price. Beware!

Unauthorized reseller:

This type of abuse is trickier to detect for someone who doesn’t actually work for the brand. For example, if I look for Hugo Boss sunglasses and I land on a legitimate website who is in fact selling this product, it’s almost impossible for a simple user like me to know if the website is an authorized reseller or not. This kind of brand abuse, also called grey market selling, can best be detected by the brand itself.

5. Taking Action

Once the suspicious search activity is detected, it is up to the brand to take action. The company’s legal department should be alerted when there is potential brand abuse in order to minimize possible loss in visibility, traffic, and/or revenue. The marketing and legal team could then work together to establish a proactive brand protection strategy. The sooner the brand abuse is detected, the faster you can act to protect your brand!

6. Staying Alert

Once you’ve taken action to protect your brand, you should still monitor identified brand abusers and possible threats. To keep an eye on the potential offenders mentioned in step four, I was able to set up notifications so that Hoosh BrandWatch will alert me every time a certain competitor is bidding on the branded keywords I selected. It’s a good way to keep control over the situation in the long run.

In Conclusion…

It is common for brand abusers to use branded keywords to redirect traffic to their own website, damaging your visibility and reputation online. However, brand abusers can easily be spotted, and it is then the brand itself to take action when necessary.

First, the company will need to develop an online brand protection plan. Second, get a tool that will deliver detailed analytics on the status of the brand. Then, make sure to continually monitor the competitive landscape so you are able to catch brand abuse as soon as possible. Once the brand abusers are identified, action can now be taken to protect brand value!

How do you protect your brand against online brand abuse? What tools do you use? If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment!


Featured Image: Wikipedia.org

Lara Vogel

Lara Vogel

Marketing Assistant at Hoosh Technology
Lara Vogel is a marketing assistant at Hoosh Technology SA, an online marketing intelligence provider, where she is in charge of social media and blogging.... Read Full Bio
Lara Vogel
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  • Ethan

    I don’t really see advertising on a competitors search as being PPC abuse. Advertising alongside competitors has been a staple of advertising long before the web was around.

    • Norton Loomer

      I agree with Ethan. Bidding on a competitor’s brand is not abuse. It’s just a part of competition.

    • Lara Vogel

      Hi Ethan,
      Thank you for your comment. The goal of this article was to show how a company can discover, monitor, and protect its brand from being “abused” on Google. You may not think that advertising on a competitor’s brand is PPC Abuse; however, the demand for brand protection exists due to Google’s trademark policy (https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/6118?hl=en).

  • Norman

    I’m not sure I agree that bidding on a competitor’s brand is PPC abuse. Google actually does more then allow it, they promote it. For example, did you know that Google considers a search for “HR Block” a match for the broad match keyword “tax preparation”?

    I have also seen our competitors brand name in the search phrases report for our generic industry keyword. So Google is making these matches even if you don’t specifically target them.

    In the case where we target competitor’s brands, we have the ability to specific show a customized ad, that indicates the ad is for an “alternative”. So the ad can be written with the user experience in mind.

    • Lara Vogel

      Hi Norman,
      Thank you for taking the time to read my article and for your comment. Like you said, Google allows companies to bid on competitors’ brands (https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/6118?hl=en). This is precisely why I wrote this article. I wanted to explain that it’s up to the company to monitor its competitive environment and protect its brand in search, because Google won’t.

      • Norman

        Absolutely. One of the more challenging discussions I have with some clients is on this very topic. I often recommend clients bid on their own brand to protect it from competitors. There are lots of posts on the benefits of this strategy.

        My point was the same as the others, which is I think it’s wrong to say the strategy of bidding on competitors keywords is inherently abuse. It would only be abuse if you put the trademark in your ad. Sorry if I was nitpicking the otherwise very good article.

        If you DO NOT want to bid on competitor’s brands, I suggest adding the brands as a negative keyword. Google knows our competitor sells websites for accountants. Their brand name is very unique, and not even close to the keyword “cpa websites”. However even still, their brand shows up in search phrases report for the broad match “cpa websites”. I think in cases like this the impression share is pretty low, but it sheds some light in how their matching algorithm works.

  • mike campolattano

    Great article Lara! Also great comments guys! Let me see if I can add something to the conversation.

    First as some have stated above bidding on competitive keywords is not abuse, that’s correct. However where the abuse happens is when companies use the ad copy and URL structure to look as if they are actually the other brand. This tactic can in many cases trick the consumer into believing they are clicking on the brand they intended to find. This is deceptive and can lead to a negative user experience.

    For example look this ad running for the “Peabody Hotel” in Orlando:
    Visit The Peabody Orlando Hotel‎
    25 – 60% Off From Official Rates
    Book Online Today And Save Money

    Now in some cases the above ad could make one believe they are going to the “Peabody Hotel” website, when in reality they are on their way to “hotelscombined.com”. The use of a generic “brand Labeled” title along with a “branded URL” gives a false impression to the consumer. Pretending you are a brand to get clicks is a deceptive i.e. abusive tactic.

    Now here is an ad that is being competitive in the right ways by going after the keyword but still being transparent to the consumer:
    Loews Portofino Bay Hotel – Best Price Guarantee at Booking.com
    4.6 rating for booking.com
    Book at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
    Ratings:Ease of booking 9.5/10 – Selection 9/10 – Service 8/10
    Booking.com has 2,377,951 followers on Google+
    Deals & Special Offers – View Hotel on a Map – Check Availability – Hotel Reviews

    Google is all for bidding on competitive keywords however they do expect a company to get traffic based on it’s own merit and authority and not because it made the consumer believe they were another brand. Online OTA’s abuse brands all the time via PPC and steal millions of dollars a year from hotels using deceptive tactics which is why a number of large hotel brands are suing Online Travel Agents. As we speak Hilton is currently in litigation with Expedia over deceptive ad tactics.

    So wrapping this up, great article, great comments, and in this instance everyone here is right in some ways…hooray 🙂

    • Lara Vogel

      Hi Mike! Thanks for taking the time to write a comment! Very interesting example, I understand your argument and I agree with you. Maybe I should have made it more clear that my goal was to show how companies could monitor and protect their brand online. I wasn’t trying to judge what is considered abuse, and what isn’t, because I believe that is up to the brand itself. Anyways, thanks for the insights! I always enjoy reading different perspectives.

    • Norman

      Great follow up and example. I agree.

      It can get a little tricky with keyword insertion and Google’s matching searches on brand names with broad match keywords you may be bidding on (see my previous comment examples).

      A suggestion would be, to bid on other brands, segment those keywords into their own ad group, write clear ads (such as “Alternative to Brand B”), then add the brand names as negative keywords to your generic ad groups.

      That way you can force google to show the best ad for the best user experience.

  • Rank Watch

    Brand abuse is very common and clearly visible through PPC. Thanks for sharing the tool Hoosh BrandWatch. Would be really helpful for business enterprises.

    • Lara Vogel

      Thank you for your comment. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to explore the tool a little further!

  • Sera

    It irritates me to no end when I’m searching for something, using specific terms, and I go to a site that allegedly qualifies as containing those terms/words, and those terms are no where to be found on their site.

    Just a vent there.

    Great tip on bidding on your site’s brand/keywords before the competition does.

    • Lara Vogel

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you!