Keyword Ownership: What It Is and Where It's Headed?

by Richard Zwicky

This article from The Mender (Issue 37),
Metamend's Web Site Optimization and Marketing Newsletter.


Have you ever received one of those silly Email that offers to let you own a keyword? Silly question. How many such Email do you get every day?

A number of such services regularly email me offering keyword ownership of premium keywords for $300/year. They say that anyone can type the keyword I bought in the address bar of Internet Explorer, instead of typing in a URL, and they will be sent directly to my site. In total, about 3% of Internet users worldwide have implemented this system in one form or another.

Data shows that between 4% and 7% of search queries are performed by entering something in the address bar. By default for I.E. users, these searches are automatically routed through to MSN search. However, over time many of us have unknowingly installed software that re-routes these search queries to other search portals such as iGetNet or others. This often happens if you've installed any file sharing software. We have all heard or read about how many extra 'features' come with programs like Kazaa. This means that your default search from the address bar may no longer be MSN, but the basic principle still applies. Of the queries that are actually run from an address bar, at least half are unintentionally performed by people mis-typing the desired URL.

So how exactly do these address bar plug-ins work? There are many companies offering this kind of service with each selling the very same keywords to different, and sometimes competing clients. To make things worse, the keywords you might buy will only work with the issuing company's proprietary address bar plug-in. Moreover, in order to provide keyword search functionality from the address bar, each of these service providers needs to get individual Internet users to download and install their plug-in and then remember to run searches from the address bar.

How effective can a marketing strategy of this nature be when the various tools are not interchangeable, numerous competitors are selling the same keywords to different companies and only a small fraction of Internet users are being targeted? If your ad is being displayed because it's similar to the search query, are you paying for irrelevant results? This can happen. If there isn't a perfect match to a search query, the next closest match may be displayed.

Competing with these companies is any search engine that offers its own toolbar; none of which are tied into any of these keyword ownership schemes. You can download a free toolbar from any number of engines and easily run searches on any keyword or phrase, obtaining that search engine's selection of closest matches from all the web sites they have indexed.

Who Started This?

Started in 1998, Realnames was the first company that tied searching via the address bar to a web browser. At the time, it was touted as a value-added solution for businesses around the world that wanted their products found quickly but didn't want their customers wading through a sea of Web addresses.

In part, it was deemed necessary because so few web site operators were search engine savvy, and fewer still knew anything about search engine optimization and promotion. The Realnames solution allowed a web site operator to buy a keyword which when typed into the I.E. address toolbar automatically sent the I.E. user to the web site that owned the keyword.

Realnames hoped to profit from businesses that wanted to reach Internet users who found it simpler to type keywords into a browser address bar than to remember URLs or to use a standard search interface.

Unfortunately for the company, the service was entirely dependent on Microsoft and, when Microsoft stopped supporting the technology in May 2002, the company was forced to close. Unlike today's keyword vendors, the Realnames service did not offer a downloadable plug-in but was instead directly integrated into Internet Explorer by Microsoft.

The Legal Question

Each of the companies offering these services has a policy designed to ensure that a web site can only buy keywords related to that site's content, but their review process is not designed to keep cyber squatters from hijacking popular names and products. This means that the rights to copyrighted material like "Pepsi" or generic words like "business" could end up in the hands of the first buyer, not the trademark or copyright owner. For these keyword ownership services to police copyright and trademark infringement would not be cost effective or practical. Thus, the purchaser may be left liable for any copyright infringement penalties, whether intentional or not.

The legal right of companies to 'sell' or rent terms was settled in the summer of 1999 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Playboy v Excite. In a precedent setting ruling, Judge Stotler of the United States District Court in Santa, Ana, California, dismissed a lawsuit brought by Playboy Enterprises against the search engine Excite, Inc. and Netscape. The ruling limited the online rights of trademark holders, recognizing that a trademark may be used without authorization by search engines in advertising sales practices.

What About Within Meta Tags?

Is it illegal to use trademarked terms in your meta tags? Sometimes. The problem occurs with how and why you are using the terms. Web sites that use the tags in a deceptive manner have lost legal battles. However, legitimate reasons to use the terms have resulted in successful defenses. Again, two Playboy cases play crucial roles. In one a former Playmate, Terri Welles used the terms "Playmate" and "Playboy" on her web pages and within her meta tags, and the Court felt she had a legitimate right to use them to accurately describe herself, and to ensure that the search engines could catalog her web site properly within their databases.

In a separate case involving Playboy, the firm was able to prove trademark infringement, based on use of their trademark term 'Playboy' in meta tags, url and excessively within content on the web site. The defendant had no claim to the term, and was personally profiting from its use.

In Summary

It is clear that, if you have a legitimate reason to use a trademarked word or phrase in your web site, you can. You may also 'rent' the ownership from one of the keyword ownership companies. Be careful, though, it is possible that you may get sued.

Does the technology work? Yes, but only for some of the up to 3% of Internet users worldwide who have installed any one of a variety of competing plug ins that enable this type of searching. I stress a fraction of the 3%, as you would need to buy the keywords from each individual vendor to ensure reaching all 3%.

Other articles from this issue:
- Proactive Versus Reactive Marketing

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