Search Engine Guide: The Struggle for Brand Control

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Search engines have created a new means by which consumers have gained power. They use search to find information on products and services on their terms. Consumers manage what information they want and when they want it. Yet in a marketplace where brand owners could control a greater stream of communication, many fall short of true brand ownership in the search space.

This is most evident when a brand receives negative press. Consumers want more information and head online to perform their due diligence. Obvious examples of brands being overrun in the search space are in the pharmaceutical industry, where drug recalls prompt searches. Search ads are filled with lawyers and anti-company sites. The brand is essentially hijacked to other sites willing to make a profit.

A search for "Vioxx" on Yahoo yields 11 search ads for lawsuits and lawyers. The brand site is first in natural listings, but Merck can be sure that the opposing ads draw traffic away from the brand. A search for "Merck pharmaceuticals" results in ads about the recall and lawsuits with no messaging from Merck.

Merck could be using the search space to further the brand message and the steps of the recall, giving the company's side, but what is a natural public relations exercise for them has yet to be translated to an online search initiative. Merck could choose to bid for exposure with a site/page devoted to explaining the FDA decision on Vioxx or could push people through natural listings to a PR release about the removal of the product from the market. Instead, lawyers and news sites own the space, leaving consumers to draw their own conclusions.

Wal-Mart is another example of a brand losing control of its search results. A Yahoo search yields 13 ads, none owned by the brand. The results are a mix of shopping aggregators and news sites. Opposition, news and discount sites infiltrate the organic listings alongside brand results. Previously, the firm used search to control its brand message. It used paid search earlier this year to combat rumors and anti-Wal-Mart sites. It launched and bought keywords in Overture (now Yahoo Search Marketing) to drive consumers to the site to present its side of the story on several issues.

This is certainly a start to the solution, but without a strong organic search solution for consistent presence and a full-time paid exposure, the problems will return and require more expense and energy to combat.

As online news distribution and consumers' search behavior becomes more ubiquitous, it's obvious that search positioning and strategy will be key. Firms that let opportunistic third parties tread on their space will find greater disconnect between consumers and their brands.

For more articles from The Direct Marketer's Essential Guide to Search Engine Marketing, visit .

A PDF of the guide is available at:

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