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Google (GOOG) is going global with an advertising strategy that has kicked up controversy in the U.S. and Europe. As part of its efforts to generate revenue from online ads, Google lets marketers in a handful of countries pay to surface their ads when a would-be customer searches for a rival's brand name.
Starting June 4, marketers in about 200 countries will be allowed to purchase rival trademarks as keywords to trigger display of "sponsored search" ads on Google. Honda, for instance, could bid to have one of its ads displayed when a consumer searches the term "Toyota." In recent years some companies have sued Google or the competing company, saying the practice is a form of trademark infringement.
The decision to implement the strategy more widely suggests that Google is confident it is operating on sound legal footing. "Following a global legal review, we have made the changes in countries whose legal and business practices are consistent with making the change," Google spokesman Ben Novick explained in an e-mail. Notably excepted from the long list of countries are member of the European Union, though a forthcoming court ruling could change that.
Efforts to force Google to curtail the practice have met with mixed results. In April a U.S. appeals court said a patent-infringement claim by computer repair company Rescuecom could go forward—though to win, Rescuecom will have to prove that consumers will be confused if rivals are drawn to rival Web sites.
Europe's highest court, the European Court of Justice, has also been asked to rule on the issue after member country courts reached differing results. Google is appealing the loss of an infringement case in France to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton but has won similar cases in Germany. In the EU, "the legal and business practices there are not consistent with making the change," Novick wrote in the e-mail.
Google's policy, implemented in the U.S. and Canada in 2004, bars advertisers from using others' trademarks in the text of the ad itself but does permit it in the unseen keywords used to display the ad in cases where the keyword is used in a search. After adopting the same policy in the United Kingdom and Ireland last year, Google has now decided to extend it virtually worldwide.
Orey covers corporations for BusinessWeek.