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AdWords Trademark Policy Q&A With Terri Chen, Chief Trademark Counsel

As great as it must be to be Google, there are probably a zillion issues that probably bog them down just like any other big company. Take for example the logistics behind the legalities they deal with regarding trademark issues on their AdWords platform. Every brand has their own ideas on how their trademarked terms should or shouldn’t be used within search engine marketing. With so much potential dollars at play, it’s important for brands to be diligent and protect themselves from misuse by competitors and counterfeiters.

Most SEMers can quote the AdWords quality score formula or bid policy, but I’ve found that many of us are a bit hazy on the trademark policy. I thought it would be good to go straight to the source and speak with Terri Chen, Chief Trademark Counsel for the platform. She’s the real deal– went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and law school and worked at Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati before coming to Google’s Trademark group in 2005. I think you’ll appreciate how direct her responses are with regards to this sometimes misunderstood policy.

Q: What is your role with Google?

Terri: I head up the Trademarks group at Google which is responsible for Google’s own suite of trademarks, as well as considering and setting policies for our various products, such as AdWords.

Q: Are you located in Mountain View? Tell me more about the team.

Terri: Yes, I’m in Mountain View and yes this is definitely a global issue as we have different policies in different countries. The team is worldwide and includes various individuals and dedicated support teams who work on these issues and to resolve issues and inquiries.

Q: Overall, what’s Google’s stance towards trademark usage in AdWords?

Terri: We believe that relevant, informative advertising supports Google’s mission as a company, which is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible to our users. In addition to many other types of information, relevant advertisements are an important source of information for our users. So AdWords, as well as helping thousands of businesses grow their operations and reach users, is a key part of what Google is all about. Our trademark policy strives to balance the interests of brand owners, advertisers, and users. Referring to trademarks is often necessary to convey relevant information, such as advertisers being able to accurately describe their products. Accordingly, we have crafted our trademark policy to enable users to receive the most relevant information possible when using our search services.

Q: What are the two biggest questions or misconceptions that you think are out there in the search community regarding Google trademark policy/procedure?

Terri: Some brand owners conflate keyword advertising as a whole with counterfeit activity and as a result, do not want anyone to be able to use their TMs as keywords to trigger ads. It’s important to distinguish keyword advertising of legitimate genuine products from ads that are offering counterfeit products. Keyword advertising allows all sorts of legitimate ads to run, such as reseller ads, informational ads, and comparative shopping ads. Ads for counterfeit goods are a separate issue. We have a strict policy against any ads offering counterfeit products and offer a counterfeit complaint procedure for TM owners to help us quickly eliminate such ads from the AdWords system.

See http://services.google.com/inquiry/aw_counterfeit.  We share TM owners’ concerns and do not want counterfeit activity in our AdWords system.

Another misconception is that Google has made exceptions to its TM policy and will monitor certain brands and not others. We’ve gotten questions about this especially in cases where ads are not showing up on a certain query. For those cases though, it’s most likely because there are no ads with a high enough quality score to justify serving them. Google does not make exceptions and applies the policy across the board, including to its own trademarks. We do not monitor our own TMs as keywords anywhere because we don’t think that it’s trademark use.

Q: How did this philosophy grow into what it is today? Were there some big instance or even legal cases that helped to evolve this mindset?

Terri: Google has always maintained the philosophy of putting the user first and providing the most relevant information. But applying those principles is difficult because this is a somewhat unsettled issue in the field of trademark law. We have been involved in some key cases such as Geico, Rescuecom, and most recently Rosetta Stone and the European Court of Justice cases involving Louis Vuitton, and we are pleased that the courts are generally recognizing that keyword advertising like this is not trademark infringement.

Q: Can you briefly detail the trademark holder’s process with regards to issues?  Basically what can or can’t happen…

Terri: The policy is set out here.

Let me try to summarize. The policy differs by country so I’m generalizing a bit.

In almost all countries, we will not take any action with respect to advertisements using TMs as keywords to trigger ads. In the US, and soon in UK, Canada and Ireland – we allow the use of TMs in ad text if the ad is from a reseller, a vendor of components or spare parts, or an informational sites.

In most other countries, we will prevent advertisers from using third-party TMs in ad text upon receipt of a reasonable complaint from the TM owner.

We offer an online complaint form here. We have a legal support team dedicated to handling TM complaints. That team will investigate complaints and then remove any ads that are in violation of our policy.

Q: What should trademark holders expect when working with Google regarding issues? Timelines?

Terri: Each complaint is unique so it’s difficult to give a standard timeline; it depends on the nature of the complaint, how many TMs are involved, complexity of the issue. We try to do this absolutely as quickly as possible.

Q: What’s been your feedback from AdWords users who you have engaged with regarding trademark issues?

Terri: It has been varied with some advertisers very happy with our policy and others less so. For the most part, once folks have an understanding of the policy and our rationale for it and then see that we apply it evenly and dispassionately, they tend to respect the policy even if they ultimately wish we had a different policy. We appreciate feedback and are always open to hearing from brand owners, advertisers, and users.

Q: Where can we get more information regarding the trademark policy?

Terri: My best advice is to spend 20 minutes reading our Help Center. We try to make it as simple and clear as possible there and we’ve found most people get everything they need from it. We’d also love to hear any feedback you have.

Q: If there’s one thing you’d like to let the search community know about this issue, what would it be?

Terri: That Google is very open to working with folks within our policies and complaint procedures. As a brand owner itself, Google understands the challenges involved with enforcing trademarks, but ultimately, we want to make sure that we’re serving the most relevant results and ads to our users. Banning all TM use from keyword advertising is overreaching and ultimately restricts the free flow of relevant information.

Q: So, what’s the roadmap here? Do you feel that your current structure/policies are pretty much set for awhile or are there new ideas/challenges on the horizon?

Terri: It’s still an evolving area of the law with a number of pending cases so am sure there will be new challenges. We recently made some changes in Europe for example, following a major court decision. We do not have current plans to make changes, but we continually evaluate our policies and how they reflect users, TM holders and advertisers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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