Trademark & Merchant Name PPC Bidding

There are a lot of discussions these days centered around unscrupulous Affiliates using pay per click (PPC) search marketing to drive traffic via searches for merchant names, their domain names and/or any trademarks they might own. Common terms in the Affiliate industry to describe this practice include “Trademark Bidding” or “Trademark Poaching” to name just two. Some merchants offer a wide open PPC policy for Affiliates, which would open up bidding to any keyword including company or domain names. However, these merchants are few and far between. In fact it is safe to say that most merchants do not want this to take place.

It took a while for the practice of trademark bidding to catch on to the point where it became a serious issue for merchants running serious Affiliate programs. Some Affiliate paid search marketing “firms” even built their businesses on trademark bidding across the board with thousands of web retailers. That is until these retailers caught on and started regulating this activity. After all what web retailer wants Affiliates sitting on position one of a paid listing by way of a search on their company name? Especially when they are listed in position one organically already? The answer: Not very many at all.

Just like the story goes with “parasites” and their shady downloads/toolbars, many PPC Affiliates may not be trademark bidding now, but that does not mean they weren’t engaged in this before. This is not to say that this is no longer a problem. Trust me, it is a serious problem. There are still plenty of Affiliates who sign up for a merchant, start bidding on driving traffic for their name (which is likely a very cheap bid price, BTW), and run with it as long as they can. This is especially the case with merchants who do not post terms that prohibit this type of thing, because most major Affiliate networks in the US leave it up to merchants to regulate trademark bidding.

This is costing web retailers a lot of of time and money. Unless of course these retailers are running their programs in the AvantLink network. By default, we do not allow Affiliates to bid on merchant names, their domain names or their trademarks. From our perspective this is the only logical way to approach the issue considering the strong majority of retailers do not want Affiliates trademark bidding. It would be easy to leave it up to the merchant and turn our backs on the issue altogether, and it would surely mean more revenue for AvantLink. But that’s not how mutually respected and fair partnerships should be maintained.

We not only police programs and traffic for Affiliate trademark bidding at the network level, but when we do find these violations we are often times notifying the Affiliate and addressing the issue before the merchants even know it is happening. Word must be out or something, though. Because we hardly see it happening anymore, and this is while our sheer numbers of high-value Affiliates continues to climb!

Of course in the end it’s up to merchants whether or not they want to blow open their paid search policy for Affiliates. But the default policy in AvantLink prohibits trademark bidding, unless the merchant makes the exception and includes program terms that clearly state this is permitted. To handle it in reverse (requiring merchants to state a policy that prohibits trademark bidding) does not seem appropriate considering the full context of the issue.

We polled a few Affiliate industry folks on this topic, to see where they stand. Chuck Hamrick from (Chuck also handles the program in AvantLink, in addition to high profile Affiliate Crew clients like Little Giant Ladder) had this to say in response to the following questions:

  1. Q. Do any of the merchants you represent allow Affiliates to knowingly bid on merchant names, domain names and/or trademarks? A. Heavily branded merchants are completely restrictive and do not allow affiliates to use trademarks, domain or direct linking. When a merchant is spending a considerable amount on their own PPC they do not want affiliates cannibalizing the ads. Some merchants do allow trademark bidding or to bid below the trademark site with trademark in title/copy but not the display URL. We have one client who allows unrestricted bidding on their trademarks.
  2. Q. What are the implications and time commitments of policing your programs from merchant name, domain name and trademark Affiliate PPC bidders? A. Most violations are pointed out by the merchant, PPC department or other affiliates. It is difficult to completely police trademarks without a 3rd party tool like Brand Verity. Networks that provide the affiliate ID in the redirect URL are huge time saves as it can take several hours to run down the affiliate.
  3. Q. Do you feel it’s important for a network to regulate this activity by default with a no merchant name, domain name or trademark bid policy? A. It should be the decision of the merchant whether they allow bidding or not. But, the default should be no bidding. Networks should clearly identify a merchants trademark policy, time stamp any changes, notify affiliates and make the acceptance of the policy actionable.

Let us know how you feel about the issue. Affiliate managers, is it difficult to police for trademark bidding? Is it costing you time and money? How do others out there (Affiliates and merchants alike) feel about the default policy of not allowing merchant name, domain name or trademark bidding?

Gary M