What to Do When Competitors Buy Your Brand Keyword

So you’re using paid search to promote your brand online?

I’m sure you have spent a fair amount of money trying to generate more quality leads. The use of your brand keywords and brand name has no doubt proven to be the most cost-effective.

Now, imagine waking up one morning, opening your laptop, and keying in your branded keyword only to find the top listings are all ads bought by your biggest competitor.

What’s worse, this conquesting tactic is not actually banned by Google or Bing.

Screenshot from Support.google.com, October 2021

As of June 4, 2019, Google abolished the restrictions that stopped brands from bidding on a competitor’s branded keyword.

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The only remaining condition is that your competitors can’t use your trademarked brand name in their ad copy.

Starting June 4, marketers in about 200 countries will be allowed to purchase rival trademarks as keywords to trigger display of “sponsored search” ads on Google.

Honda, for instance, could bid to have one of its ads displayed when a consumer searches the term “Toyota.” In recent years some companies have sued Google or the competing company, saying the practice is a form of trademark infringement.

The decision to implement the strategy more widely suggests that Google is confident it is operating on sound legal footing.

This means that you can’t report your competitor to Google. No rule, no complaints. Going through Google to fix such an issue has become more limited.

If this is acceptable in Google’s eyes, then what’s the remedy?

Going the Basecamp route is one option:

Basecamp google ad.Screenshot from Twitter.com, October 2021

Fortunately, there are a few other measures you can resort to. Of course, you don’t want to lose potential clients simply because they saw your competitor’s ad first.

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Instead, there are four things you can do that can turn a sour situation into something beneficial for your business.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Own Your Brand Name

Semrush vs ahrefs ad.Screenshot from search for [ahrefs], October 2021

It doesn’t always seem logical to bid on your own brand keywords, but it’s a good way to protect your brand name and to regain the clicks you’ve lost when a competitor’s ads show up under your brand keywords.

In some instances, it takes another company buying your branded keywords to remind you that you forgot to bid on your brand name to begin with.

Your competitor likely saw that no one (including you) was bidding on your brand name, so it took advantage of the opportunity to pay a higher cost-per-click (CPC), to siphon valuable leads away from your business.

Another benefit to buying your own brand name is that you’re in charge of the messaging. It gives you the opportunity to create different types of ads that you can A/B test to see which are the most effective:

  • Should you include a CTA in your ad?
  • Should you include a discount code or coupon?
  • Should you let people know that you offer free two-day shipping?

When someone else buys your brand, they’re not interested in posting ads that have anything to do with your business. As similar as your business might be, your USP is different.

So, just because someone is buying your branded keyword doesn’t mean you have to stick with the same old copy.

One of my favorite examples is below:

Bidnamic ppc ad.Screenshot from search for [Bidnamic], October 2021

In other words, it’s worth controlling the message in a way that positions your business accurately when prospects view that ad – even if a competitor is also visible.

Aside from just manually bidding, there are a few perhaps less known bid options that will help in these specific situations:

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Target Impression Share

Target impression share is an automated bidding strategy that will dynamically set your bids in an effort to increase your ads’ chances of appearing in one of three areas of the search results pages:

  1. Anywhere on results page.
  2. Top of results page.
  3. Absolute top of results page.

Google Ads will then automatically set your bids to help meet that target.

Target impressions share options.Screenshot from Google Ads, October 2021

Simply navigate to Settings > Bidding > Change Bidding Strategy > Target Impression share.

The basic settings you’ll need to update are:

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Where do you want your ads to appear: Depending on your budget and/or how many leads/sales you may be losing to your competitors will likely determine which placement to choose. I would recommend testing the options to determine the best budget-to-performance selection.

Percent (%) impressions share to target: For brand terms, I think 100% should be the default input but either way, enter the percentage of auctions that you would like to outrank your competitor.

Max. bid limit: This is the highest max CPC you are willing to pay. For some, brand terms are invaluable so the sky is the limit. For others, despite their importance, there are still budget restrictions to keep in mind. The most important thing to remember: if your campaign is limited by budget, the strategy might not be able to achieve this particular targeting goal.

Because the strategy can take up to seven days to start producing results, we recommend waiting at least that long before making changes to the strategy settings.

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Otherwise, the “learning” will be reset and you’ll be back to day one of learning.

2. Talk To The Business, File A Cease & Desist

Before you take any action, it’s important that you reach out to the competitor that bought your brand keywords and ask them to remove the ads.

In your mind, this may be a waste of time because it’s doubtful that your competitor would comply with that request.

That may be true, but you always want to give that other business the opportunity to make things right, so that when things really start to get heated between you two in terms of competing ads, your conscience is clear because you tried to take the high road.

And in some cases, your competition may not actually be aware that it bid on your keywords, especially if it was done by an agency that didn’t reveal it was using this tactic to boost search engine rankings.

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In my personal experience, more than once, this simple request revealed the competitor’s agency was buying these terms without their knowledge. In other cases, the ad serving was due to Google’s liberal keyword matching and/or lack of negative keywords.

While we never give legal advice, if all acts of diplomacy fail, just the threat of legal action is sometimes enough motivation to get your competitor to shift their budget elsewhere.

A cease and desist order from your attorney is the next step here.

3. File A Trademark Complaint With The Engines

This option is only viable if your brand name is trademarked.

You can file a trademark complaint to prevent all advertisers from using any of your brand keywords in their ad copy.

Should you own the trademark, this is probably a smart step for cutting off most forms of Google Ads trademark abuse regardless of whether your brand is currently being conquested. To be clear, it won’t stop 100% of infringements, but it should reduce them significantly.

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Bing, on the other hand, is less clear about the longevity of the trademark complaint, but it’s a smart step regardless.

You can file this complaint with Google here and Bing here.

Tips For Filing A Trademark Complaint

Over the years, I’ve helped submit a number of these on behalf of my clients. A few tips that can help speed the process:

Submit Complaints With The Email Address Of The Trademark Owner

While many clients defer to their agencies to submit these, I’ve found that submitting these complaints with an email address from the trademark owner removes some of the verification follow-ups needed to process the claim.

Gather All Supporting Documentation First

Before starting the process, gather the supporting documentation. Depending on the size of the company, it may take some research to get all the supporting information.

This includes:

  • The complete list of terms/phrases that are trademarked.
  • Trademark registration number and country.
  • Name of trademark owner.
  • Your ad account ID and name.
  • Screenshots of the offending ad(s).
  • A list of all websites that are permitted to use your trademark (if any).
  • Your (or your agency’s) Bing/Google account manager.

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Speaking of account managers, if you have a dedicated account manager, make sure to loop them in. They should be able to help push the request through on their end which can speed the process.

4. Bid On Your Competition’s Brand Keywords

If the above actions fail, you can always start bidding on their brand keywords. Your CPC is higher when you bid on another brand, but there could be some benefits that outweigh those costs.

Before you bid, research the amount of traffic your competitors are generating based on the branded terms they are using.

Semrush, Spyfu, and other tools are great for this. They are easy to learn and navigate. You’ll get the best results on the keywords to bid on and the amount of traffic to expect.

By targeting the competitor that bought your brand, you could force their CPCs higher, conquest some of their lead volumes, and potentially force them to stop bidding on your brand name, which is a good thing.

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Remember, you can’t use a competitor’s trademarked name in any of your ad copy so you’ll have to be clever and creative when creating your ads.

Tip: If you engage in this effort, you’ll likely get crushed with low-quality scores (translated in its simplest form: relevance between keywords + ad copy + landing page). This makes sense as it would be an outlier to list your competitor’s name on your own website.

It is also prohibited to include trademarked terms in the ad copy itself. This leaves very low relevance according to Google’s algorithm and will result in very high CPCs compared to your account average. Over time, this may make it performance-prohibitive to continue.

A strategy we’ve found to work well in the past to improve at least the keyword + landing page relationship is to build out a comparison table or chart on your landing page.

The below example from Monday.com is one of my favorites that uses third-party inputs to show the benefits.

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The ad…

Monday vs basecamp google ad.Screenshot from search for [basecamp], October 2021

…aligns with the landing page nicely and allows for the competitor’s keyword to be naturally including in the landing page content:

Monday vs basecamp landing page.Screenshot from Monday.com, October 2021

As you can see from the example above, this is especially useful for comparison terms like “x brand” vs. “y brand.” Don’t forget to build the landing page with a strong CTA to help collect the conversion!

Now, Go Protect Your Brand

Once your competition bids on your branded keywords, you need to take immediate action so that they don’t keep siphoning quality prospects from your pipeline.

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First, contact them to notify them of your complaint and see if you can solve the issue amicably. If this is impossible, protect your brand by bidding on your branded keywords.

If everything else fails, your last resort should be bidding on their keyword.

Good luck in securing your brand terms!

More Resources:


Featured Image: Sammby/Shutterstock

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