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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tarnishing a Competitors Brand with Paid Search

When most people think of paid search they think of ways paid search can benefit their business. Paid search is a great way to acquire customers or potential customers (leads) at an often lower cost than other advertising platforms. Paid search allows you to reach consumers at various points throughout the buying cycle and to present highly relevant ads in order to take consumers to the perfect page on your site.

There's a dark side to paid search though, one that's practiced far more than it's written or spoken about. All of the benefits of paid search can be flipped around and used against a business or individual if someone is willing to spend the money to make it happen. I was reminded of this while reading a Google Groups post, "I'll bet you have NEVER had this happen to you".

The author of the post, ttbcom, says:

"Someone ELSE is advertising our company through their own PPC
campaign. Yes, someone ELSE is paying money to Google to drive traffic
to our site. But Google won't tell me who they are.

You might argue that it drives free traffic to my site, so that's a
good thing. But this ad advertises for a sale that we are NOT having.
That might anger people who arrive at the site and see no sale."

AdWordsPro responded to the thread and says that he has seen similar reports in his 6 years with Google and the ads in question came from other departments within the same company that took it upon themselves to open AdWords accounts and start campaigns without informing anyone else. If that turns out to be the case for ttbcom I would imagine he (or she) could rectify the situation quickly...but what if that's not the case and the ads were not setup by someone ttbcom can ask to shut them off? I've never seen an official answer to that question.

The reality is AdWords (and every other paid search platform) is being utilized in today's competitive market not just to generate sales, build brands or minimize customer acquisition costs...it's being used to make all of that harder for your competition to do successfully, and, to tarnish competing brands at the same time. How is that possible you ask? Here are just few ways I have seen "in the live" over the past 6 months:

  • Wrong price information in ad copy.
  • Bad phone numbers in ad copy.
  • Typos and other grammatical errors intentionally inserted into ad copy.
  • Ads landing potential customers on pages that do include the product the ad said would be there.
  • Ads setup to point to "consumer review" sites that include negative information about the company.
Generally speaking, the people setting up the negative ad campaigns are jut trying to make the target company look bad by ruining the user experience in any way they can. While the first 4 points listed above are relatively "tame" in comparison to some of things that could be done they can still have a HUGE impact on the business you are able to generate from your paid search campaigns...especially if the people running the negative ad campaign are you using your url as the display url. Google only shows one ad per search query for advertisers sharing the same top level domain in the display url which means that if the company trying to tarnish your brand is actually sending people to a page on your site they can use your top level domain as their display url and if they are aggressive enough prevent your ad from showing for your target terms.

If you're a small business that relies on paid search for a large portion of your sales and revenue I don't have to tell you how damaging that could be.

Now point 5 from above is a different animal:

"
Ads setup to point to "consumer review" sites that include negative information about the company."

Some people embrace negative press claiming that there are a number of reasons why you should play it for all it's worth while other companies go so far as to hire consultants or companies to help them keep their online reputation "clean". Most small business owners I know value their reputation above pretty much anything else. Their reputation wins them new clients and helps retain loyal customers. When they start seeing negative ads showing up in the search results it can make them sick, especially if the claims are false which is often the case on some review sites. If a competitor wants to make you look bad they can simply post a number of complaints on the review site(s) and then setup paid search campaigns pointing to those sites for your business name and it's variations. They may even own or control the review sites in which case the small business owner won't even be able to post a legitimate follow up or contest any of the claims made on the site.

At the present time there's not a whole lot you can do to combat this type of advertising. At minimum you should contact the paid search platform (AdWords, YSM, adCenter, etc) and file report. In some cases you may be able to get the ad(s) pulled, especially if they violate a current rule or regulation put in place by the search engines. For example, Google's editorial and format policies covers a lot of the issues touched on in the first 4 bullet points. The problem there though is the burden of finding and reporting the ads will rest with you, and, it will often take some time before Google takes any action in relation to the offending ads. And even after all that there's no guarantee the negative ads won't surface again through a different account or with slightly different wording.

If you have suggestions for combating negative ads or have been through this before please feel free to share what steps you took to resolve the issue. As professional paid search marketers each of us will likely deal with this issue at some point in our career.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Personal AdWords Account Hacked

I had an AdWords account of mine hacked on September 18th. I had not logged directly into this particular AdWords account in a long time, at least 6 months. I do access it occasionally but always via my MCC login. Whoever hacked the account accessed it using the primary login, not the MCC. I'm really at a loss as to how the account was compromised. I use strong passwords and take a lot of precautions like making sure I'm only logging in from secure environments.

I have to give credit to Google's systems for detecting the unusual activity and disabling the entire account before any charges were incurred. None of the campaigns created by the hacker every received a single impression - even though they had high daily budgets and CPC's associated with the keywords they had added to the account.

The purpose of this post is just to serve as a reminder to everyone with an AdWords account...how strong is your password and when is the last time you changed it? While I was very fortunate...that might not be the case for everyone. The person who hacked my AdWords account could have changed my password and locked me out...that didn't happen. I was also very fortunate that this was not a business or client account, it's really more of just a hobby account I use for testing and other non-critical AdWords related projects.

If you find that one or more of your AdWords accounts has been hacked here's what to do:

It's assumed the computer(s) you use to access your AdWords account(s) are free of viruses and spyware and that your connection to the Internet is secure. If that's not the case even after following the steps below there is a possibility your AdWords account will still not be secure.

1. If you can still access the hacked account change the password right away. Make sure to create a strong password.

2. Pause/delete the campaigns that were modified or added by the hacker.

3. Contact AdWords Support. If you discover your account has been hacked during Google's business hours call them immediately at 1 (866) 246-6453 and then follow up with an e-mail so there's a written record of your report (very important). If it's outside of business hours send a message to the AdWords team via the contact form. You can also try and make contact via the "chat with a specialist feature which is here.

4. Change all of your other important passwords. If your AdWords password has been compromised the possibility exists that other passwords you use have been compromised as well.

There are a lot of different ways an account could have been compromised. The following links provide additional information and advice for people who have had an AdWords account hacked:

- Google AdWords Account Hacks Via Computer Exploit

- Google AdWords Account Hacked: False Ads and False Charges

- Protecting Your Google AdWords Account From Fraud

- What to do if I Think Someone's Hacked my AdWords Account

- Your Gmail Account (Google Account) Can be Hacked: Here's How to Protect it

- A Kidnapped AdWords Account

- How to Avoid Getting Hooked

- AdWords Hackers - What a Nightmare

- Locked out of AdWords Account

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