Search results, banner ad boundaries blur

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Search for Barnesandnoble on LookSmart, and a banner for appears. Conversely, a search for Amazon brings up a banner for on Lycos and N2K's Music Boulevard on Infoseek.

Finding out who's buying whose brand name on popular search engines is the premise behind, a site from trademark and intellectual property specialists Thomson & Thomson, Quincy, Mass.

The free service was first rolled out at @d:tech last October. Last week, Thomson & Thomson beefed up the service, doubling its reach to cover 12 top search engines and directories, and enabling it to retrieve full banner creative on keyword ad buys.

While Thomson & Thomson uses the site to attract customers to Name-, a site where it sells in-depth domain-name reports, Banner- is also trying to make a point with the ad industry, said Tom Barrett, VP at Thomson and general manager of

The real message here is there's a ``blurring of boundaries between search results and banner ads,'' Mr. Barrett said, ``especially since search results are becoming more and more advertising-sponsored,'' referring to sites like, a search engine that sells its listings by keywords to the highest bidder. ``I think the whole ad industry is doing the consumer a disservice by allowing this to continue.''

Mr. Barrett said he's raised the issue with the Internet Advertising Bureau, suggesting it take action.

However, selling a keyword to a competitor is very common and an accepted practice. Perry Allison, director of advertising sales at Compaq Computer Corp.'s AltaVista, says AltaVista gives a company first dibs on its brand names. If an advertiser chooses not to buy its names, Ms. Allison said AltaVista will offer them for sale to competitors with the condition that the owner can change its mind at any time and buy the keywords.

``We try to do everything we can to be as clear as possible,'' Ms. Allison said in response to Mr. Barrett's assertion that consumers might be confused. ``We do that by putting the banner on the same place on the page,'' Ms. Allison said. ``I think over time people learn what is advertising and what isn't.''

As vigilant as it is, AltaVista still confronts instances where advertising creative tries to mimic the content on its site or creative that contains search boxes, both of which it rejects, Ms. Allison said.

Copyright January 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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