Knowing Certain Trademark Ads Were Confusing, Google Sold Them Anyway — for $100+ Million

Disclosure: I serve as a consultant to various companies that compete with Google. But I write on my own — not at the suggestion or request of any client, without approval or payment from any client.

When a user enters a search term that matches a company’s trademark, Google often shows results for the company’s competitors. To take a specific example: Searches for language software seller "Rosetta Stone" often yield links to competing sites — sometimes, sites that sell counterfeit software. Rosetta Stone think that’s rotten, and, as I’ve previously written, I agree: It’s a pure power-play, effectively compelling advertisers to pay Google if they want to reach users already trying to reach their sites; otherwise, Google will link to competitors instead. Furthermore, Google is reaping where others have sown: After an advertiser builds a brand (often by advertising in other media), Google lets competitors skim off that traffic — reducing the advertiser’s incentive to invest in the first place. So Google’s approach to trademarks definitely harms advertisers and trademark-holders. But it’s also confusing to consumers. How do we know? Because Google’s own documents admit as much.

Today Public Citizen posted an unredacted version of Rosetta Stone’s appellate brief in its ongoing litigation with Google. Google had sought to keep confidential the documents that ground district court and appellate adjudication of the dispute, but now some of the documents are available — giving an inside look at Google’s policies and objectives for trademark-triggered ads. Some highlights:

  • Through early 2004, Google let trademark holders request that ads be disabled if they used a trademark in keyword or ad text. But in early 2004, Google determined that it could achieve a "significant potential revenue impact" from selling trademarks as keywords. (ref)
  • In connection with Google’s 2004 policy change letting advertisers buy trademarks as keywords, Google conducted experiments to assess user confusion from trademarks appearing in search advertisements. Google concluded that showing a trademark anywhere in the text of an advertisement resulted in a "high" degree of consumer confusion. Google’s study concluded: "Overall very high rate of trademark confusion (30-40% on average per user) … 94% of users were confused at least once during the study." (ref)
  • Notwithstanding Google’s 2004 study, Google in 2009 changed its trademark policy to permit the user of trademarks in advertisement text. Google estimated that this policy change would result in at least $100 million of additional annual revenue, and potentially more than a billion dollars of additional annual revenue. Google implemented this change without any further studies or experiments as to consumer confusion. (ref)
  • Google possesses more than 100,000 pages of complaints from trademark holders, including at least 9,862 complaints from at least 5,024 trademark owners from 2004 to 2009. (ref)

Kudos to Public Citizen for obtaining these documents. That said, I believe Google should never have sought to limit distribution of these documents in the first place. In other litigation, I’ve found that Google’s standard practice is to attempt to seal all documents, even where applicable court rules require that documents be provided to the general public. That’s troubling, and that needs to change.