Brand Safety Is More Than Just a Programmatic Problem. It Plagues Paid Search, Too

Keyword hijacking leads to billions in waste

Brand bidding in paid search drives up costs for advertisers. Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Mention the term “brand safety” to those with a cursory knowledge of how online advertising works and it conjures images of content farmers fueling ad networks to game the convoluted programmatic ecosystem of legitimate ad dollars. The end result is that ads from household brands are then served on low-quality websites containing everything from fake news to tawdry content, thus damaging their brand equity while wasting millions.

Unfortunately, however, there’s even more to worry about. The dark arts of online advertising don’t just happen via bot networks often established in faraway corners of the world. It can happen much closer to home on some of the oldest and most established advertising outlets thanks to brand hijacking on biddable media on the web’s largest search engines.

Despite the hype around programmatic, search ads are still the most lucrative online advertising channel, generating $22.8 billion of the $49.5 billion spent on all online media in the first half of last year. These ads are sold on an auction basis whereby advertisers bid for placement next to the returns on a search inquiry. Google alone took down 3.2 billion ads, many of which were “brand-bidding” infringements, according to Tim Bouhour, head of product at search marketing outfit Adthena, who added, “That was just a small fraction of the violations. Most go undiscovered. That needs to change.”

How search engines can pose a risk to brand safety

Keyword targeting experts warn of the issue, adding marketers should be aware of competitors who employ tactics such as brand bidding. Keyword hijackers derail the efforts of legitimate marketers by bidding on branded keywords such as “Target” or “Best Buy” (in the retail category, for example) or by including rival brands’ trademarked keywords in their own search ad copy.

The adverse result of such tactics can include a dramatic increase in the price of an advertiser’s own branded keywords, or the possibility of a “brand collision” in search engine returns whereby a company’s ad or branded content is served next to that of a competitor.

To use a simple example from the retail sector, a search engine user that inputs the term “eBay … ” could be served with content for rival ecommerce provider Amazon in the paid-for placement returns for said query. Ahead of the holidays, this was particularly prevalent in the retail vertical, but experts advise that the education, finance and technology sectors are particularly prone to such negative tactics the year-round.

Ian O’Rourke, founder and CEO of Adthena, said, “Search represents a sacred part of the conversion funnel for brand owners. … Keyword hijacking has increasingly disrupted that path, with rivals poaching brand-loyal consumers, affiliates causing confusion with noncompliant ads and brand search dollars going to waste.”

Citing a recent Adthena study into the phenomenon, Bouhour said a third of brand queries experience some form of competitive brand bidding, adding keyword hijackers prevent advertisers from engaging with in-market, high-intent customers who statistically deliver the highest returns on investment.

What advertisers can do

Google requires that ads on its platform don’t infringe third-party trademarks, but laws vary from market to market and complainants often have to proactively raise such concerns with the search giant. Additionally, competitive brand bidding—whereby brand X bids on the branded keywords, not trademarked terms, of a competitor in an auction—is commonplace as the practice falls within permissible practice.

Given the vast volumes of content on the internet, plus the comparatively limited resources of marketing departments to keep tabs on such phenomena, many such brand conflicts go unnoticed, and the best advertisers can often do is work with specialists to monitor the issue. But there are some tools and strategies marketers can use to fight back.

To address the issue, Adthena has announced the launch of an AI-powered brand protection solution that includes a smart alerts system that detects anomalies in bidding patterns to better help advertisers address hijackers. The new service also includes an automated notification tool to notify Google of any such alleged infringements, including how documentation is compiled and communicated to relevant parties such as account managers or legal departments.

Romain Bonnet, head of paid search, EMEA, at digital marketing agency Jellyfish, recommended advertisers develop a keyword position bid strategy to help ward off any potential hijackers. “This will come at a cost in terms of cost per click but will guarantee the brand retains the top spot for its valuable keywords,” Bonnet said. “Meanwhile, using a script and/or auction insights will allow brands to track competitor activity and react accordingly in case of future hijacking.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 14, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.
Publish date: January 13, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT