Sunday, August 19, 2007

In Search of Senselessness

Internet search disputes are beginning to veer toward the outlandish

Advertising has always brought out the most competitive side of companies. Which is understandable, given the huge stakes involved. Advertising is a key mechanism for creating and monetizing consumer mindshare, and is thus bound to be an arena where companies fight tooth-and-nail. Sportspersons and organizers of major sports events, for example, have long had to contend with sponsor companies attempting to bar rival companies' advertising, on grounds of conflict of interest.

In internet advertising too, such conflicts have sprung up from time to time. Now, Google is being sued because searches on its engine using keywords that are trademarked return results that are sponsored by the trademark-holders' rivals. Specifically, American Airlines claims that a search such as one using the keyword 'Aadvantage', a word trademarked by it, returns rival airlines' website links under sponsored results, thus allowing those rivals to get a "free ride on American Airlines" (not sure if the pun is intended or not).

American Airlines is a mighty company and is probably better off focusing its considerable energies on higher payoff areas. One hopes wiser counsel will prevail at that admirable company. But it'll be interesting to see how Google can / will respond.

So, what recourse does Google have? It can

- refuse to allow searches using keywords that are trademarked by a company. Clearly not advisable as many users do want to search by such keywords.

- 'sanitize' search results to ensure that the results (sponsored or otherwise) being thrown up do not belong to rival companies. This has a number of operational difficulties - for example, a search string may have several keywords, only one of which is trademarked. In such a case, it leaves the searcher poorer, as s/he is deprived of results that they may really be looking for.

- do as above, but only for sponsored results. This still has problems - for example, it may open Google to accusations of discriminating against those rival companies.

As for Google, it innovates constantly on various aspects of its advertising initiatives. But developments such as these are indicator of how complex something as relatively straightfoward as serving up internet ads can be.