More Evidence Why Keyword Advertising Litigation Is Waning

4 01 2017

A venerable and classic Internet Law question: when a consumer uses a trademark as a search term, what are they looking for? If they are seeking the trademark owner–and only the trademark owner–then competitive keyword advertisers may encroach on the trademark owner’s goodwill and “steal” the trademark owner’s customers (and the search engine/ad network may be profiting from this “theft”). In contrast, if consumers have heterogeneous search objectives when using a trademarked search query, trademark law would overreach–in ways that would significantly harm social welfare–if it prevented ads from parties other than the trademark owner.

Nearly a decade ago, I argued–without empirical proof–that searchers had heterogeneous search objectives when using trademarks in search queries, which made competitive keyword advertising both permissible and desirable. Since then, some empirical studies have supported this argument, especially the Franklyn/Hyman study; see also the Tucker/Bechtold study.

A new empirical study, Jeffrey P. Dotson et al, Brand Attitudes and Search Engine Queries, 37 Journal of Interactive Marketing 105 (2016), provides further support for this conclusion. The study is based on a rich dataset: a time-series of actual Google search queries in the cellphone and automotive categories by opted-in consumers. The authors don’t consider the legal questions, but their conclusions buttress the perspective that consumers have heterogeneous motivations when they use trademarks in their search queries.


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