Marketers Grab Keywords So the Competition Can't

Text Ads are Still a Battle Ground for Bidding on Product-Related Terms

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NEW YORK ( -- What are your brand's keywords -- and how much are they worth? Perhaps more important, how much will you pay to protect them?
Dodge buys the keyword 'SUV,' and keeps competitors at bay.
Dodge buys the keyword 'SUV,' and keeps competitors at bay.

Those are the questions companies such as Vibrant Media's Intellitxt force marketers to ask themselves. The contextual-advertising service places ads in the body of documents on the web, where in-text words are hyperlinked to text and video ads.

Protecting words
A recent deal with Chrysler, for example, snapped up all of Chrysler's keywords, such as Sebring and SRT, for the year. But more important, the deal protected those words from the automaker's competitors.

That's because brands can buy keywords more commonly associated with their competitors. Recently, in a story on (an Ad Age sibling) the words Toyota Camry appeared. Camry was hyperlinked as an Intellitxt ad -- one not for Camry but for Ford Fusion, which touted a side-by-side comparison of the two models.

Vibrant said it won't sell an automaker's trademarked brand name, in this case, Toyota, but it will sell a "nameplate," such as Camry. Vibrant said the ads must still "make sense," and the company has an editorial team that sifts through such situations and only allows creative that addresses why a competitor's ad would be associated with another brand's term. For example, the Ford Fusion ad was allowed on the Camry term because it specifically addressed a comparison to the Camry.

"In the auto market especially, there's very much a desire to buy competitive terms," said Gabe Greenberg, VP-strategic relationship at Vibrant Media. "Clients are saying, 'We've got key product words that are critical to our business,' for example, Dodge and Hemi."

Securing rights
He said automakers get right of first refusal on their terms and a 30-day buy-back option on terms they do not purchase. They are, however, required to buy the terms for the year. If they don't secure them, the nameplates are open to competitors.

The deal conjures memories of Google's legal battle with Geico over the search engine's allowing insurance competitors to buy the keyword "Geico." A judge ruled it was OK to sell the search term "Geico" to Geico's competition but that using the word in the headline of an ad would be misleading and would constitute a trademark infringement.

Vibrant Media's in-text, content-matching advertising has been somewhat controversial from the start. When Forbes began using the service back in 2004, it incited a maelstrom of criticism, especially from editorial departments, over blurring the lines between advertising and editorial content. While Forbes stopped using the service that year, Vibrant said it has partnerships with 1,600 publishers.

Vibrant: Not interruptive
Doug Stevenson, Vibrant's CEO, insists the advertising isn't as interruptive as traditional ads. Only when a user mouses over a word linked to an ad does a thumbnail of the ad pop up. After clicking on the ad, the user is taken to a marketer's site, and the marketer pays for that action.

"'We don't want to be seen as controversial," Mr. Stevenson said. "I hope the work we are doing shows the power of the user being in control of the advertising."
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