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Search Engine “Bait and Switch”

March 2005 Communication

As the World Wide Web continues to become a dominant marketing communications force in the business-to-business marketplace, the power of the search engines and some of their policies are becoming tested in the courts.

The B2B marketer should become increasing cognizant of its own Web presence and how the search engines direct potential customers to a Web site’s competitors. One such device is the “sponsored links” notation that appears on searches from some search engines. This has all the elements of electronic “bait and switch.” The potential customer does a Web search and when the search engine produces results there are the sponsored links. If the customer clicks on a sponsored link, he/she very well might be hooked into a competitor.

What makes this situation even more suspect is the way the search engine charges the company that purchases “sponsored links.” The compensation formula could be a certain set fee for the sponsored link or it could be a charge for every time a customer clicks on to the sponsored link or both or some other negotiated formula.

There is another peril here. It is the silent codes in a Web site. Behind the curtain of what you see on the screen are all sorts of tags, metatags and codes that the customer never sees but the spiders within the search engine seek out and which cause these sites to appear as part of the search on YOUR Web site.

What’s a marketer to do?

The first thing is to constantly do Internet searches on your site, competitive sites and descriptions of your business using the various search engines – i.e. Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. – and see what comes up. The marketer should be particularly cognizant of the “sponsored links.” The next step is to consult with an intellectual property attorney with Internet expertise. Finally, the marketer should keep abreast of the all new court rulings concerning search engine “bait and switch.”

Unfortunately, the Internet arena has not legally been defined. Court rulings are starting to establish precedents but the communications medium is so new and expanding so rapidly. That is why an attorney who is staying abreast of the latest rulings is a valuable asset to any business using the Internet as a marketing medium.

The last thing any marketer wants to do is use his money and visibility to bring business to a competitor.



About the author

James T. Berger, Managing Editor of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.

James T. Berger
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