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Can Google allow companies to use their competitors’ trademarks and other brand aspects as keywords for the purpose of stealing customers? According to courts in the UK and all over the EU, they apparently can.

Many of us are familiar with Google’s well known AdWords program. This system allows companies to pay to have their ad displayed when certain keywords are typed into the popular search engine. These are displayed next to natural search engine results. Companies that advertise with AdWords choose their own keywords, which can range from general industry terms to their own name. However, many companies claim that using another business’s trademarked terms is a violation of corporate rights. Courts in France agreed, but the European Court of Justice recently overturned the ruling.

Why is it okay for a company’s trademark, a central part of their brand, to be used in another company’s advertising? According to the ECJ, the trademark is only infringed upon if confusion is created. As long as customers understand which brand and logo design relate to which company, no rights have been violated.

There may be valid reasons to use a competitor’s trademark as a keyword. First, and most obviously, if a company offers the same goods and services as a competitor, they can showcase their own products to interested customers. Further, some companies, such as clothing stores, may sell a variety of brands and want to use these as keywords to attract interested traffic. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how a company may want to be the only entity allowed to use their own name, logo design, and other trademarks as keywords.

Google already has been allowing the usage of competitor’s keywords in the United States and almost 200 other companies. This new EU ruling will extend the system over most of Europe. Regardless of how companies feel about it, this practice is likely here to stay. Here are just a few ways your company can deal with it.

  1. Have a comprehensive brand. It’s easy to use another company’s name, but it is more complicated and less legal to use their logo design and other brand elements as well.  This makes it more important than ever to talk to a consultant in branding and logo design about how your company can create an identity that is almost theft-proof.
  2. Register all trademarks. With trademarks receiving less protection, it is all the more important to defend yourself where you can.
  3. Act defensively… and offensively. If your competitors are using your trademarks as keywords, then you should consider doing the same. This will allow you to continue receiving your fair share of AdWords hits.
  4. Don’t blame Google. Another court recently ruled that Google is the purveyor of advertisements, but not necessarily responsible for the content of them. If you think someone is unlawfully using your brand elements for their own benefits, you must deal directly with the perpetrator.

As you can see, a great business name is not enough. Having a great brand and logo design has never been so important. Talk to a logo designer today about how your business can navigate the modern business world and maintain a brand that customers can believe in.

Mash Bonigala

Mash B. is the Founder & Creative Director of Logo Design Works. Since 1998, Mash has helped thousands of businesses express their brand messages through creative and award winning logo designs.