As a digital marketing company, we get tons of questions about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Most of the time, clients ask us about the basics—how keywords work, what Google does with the keywords, and why they need keyword-rich content. We rarely get questions that dig deeper into search visibility.
This past week, two clients on different sides of the country asked about competitor search queries. “Can I use my competitor’s name as a keyword?” We’ve never gotten this question before, but it’s certainly a good one. The competition on Google is fierce, and we like to see clients thinking about SEO strategies.
Here’s the thing. We can’t answer this question with a simple Yes or No. It’s much more complicated than that. How complicated, you ask? Well, we don’t want you to get wrapped up in any legal trouble. No, we’re not kidding. This sort of thing can land companies in court if done incorrectly. This method is called Branded Search, and there is a slew of legislation to keep companies protected. Here’s how you can use your competitor’s name without violating regulations.
Branded Search vs. Non-branded
Before we get into the specifics, we have to cover some basic ground first. Keep in mind that branded keywords can be used for both paid and organic search. The same is true for unbranded keywords. They both play a vital part in your digital marketing strategy, and they usually work together in unison to improve your rankings.
Branded Search Terms
A branded keyword includes a company’s name or some variation of it. Even a misspelled name can count as a branded search term. For example, branded keywords for Pesola Media Group include search queries like:
- Pesola Media
- Pesola Media Group
- Pisola Media Group (Misspelled)
- Pesola Marketing (Not our name, but close)
Users who search for your branded keywords show a clear interest in your company. In most cases, they’re already familiar with your products or services. Branded keywords create an association between your company name and your offerings.
Non-branded Search Terms
A non-branded keyword does not include a company’s name. Instead of your brand, this type of keyword references your service, product, or industry. In our case, some of our non-branded keywords could look like:
- Marketing service
- Outsourced SEO
- Graphic design company
- Website designer
- Digital marketing
Anyone can use non-branded keywords because no one owns them, and they’re not exclusive to any industry. Think of them as public domain material. Non-branded keywords are available to everyone, in most cases, without any consequence.
The Legalities of Branded Keywords
Here’s where things get complicated. Can you legally leverage your competitor’s brand name in digital marketing? Yes, but there are a lot of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations to follow. Using your competitor’s name is only legal in specific instances. You see, the FTC protects intellectual property, and they’re good at what they do. There are countless hearings and policies about copyright and trademark protections in digital settings, so there’s no way around it.
We have to put this disclaimer out there. Pay close attention to advertising and trademark laws.
Using your competitor’s name as a branded search term is a sticky situation that can invite litigation. Your competitor’s name is legally theirs. Whether it’s a registered trademark or not isn’t important. A common law trademark protects intellectual property when used in commerce before the mark is federally registered. Either way, they’re protected by law.
Keep this in mind. This is America. Anyone can sue at any time for any reason. Even if you follow FTC guidelines, being right doesn’t prevent someone from suing you. Legal costs are a real consideration too. Big corporations have lawyers at their disposal and will typically outspend their smaller competitors.
Branded Search and Organic SEO
Using your competitor’s name as an organic keyword is tricky. Your competitor’s name must appear somewhere within the written content of your site. Otherwise, your website will not come up in organic search inquiries. The issue is you can’t freely talk about your competitor on your website. Their name isn’t your property, remember? The only way to lawfully talk about your competitor is to compare your product or service to theirs directly.
“Commission policy in the area of comparative advertising encourages the naming of, or reference to competitors, but requires clarity, and, if necessary, disclosure to avoid deception of the consumer.” – FTC Policy Statement
Translation: The FTC is fine with comparative advertising, but only if the claims are valid and relevant. Comparisons have to be clearly identified too. In other words, it has to be an apple to apple comparison. For example, comparing the calories of one strawberry milkshake to another is perfectly fine.
“Comparative advertising, when truthful and non-deceptive, is a source of important information to consumers and assists them in making rational purchase decisions. Comparative advertising encourages product improvement and innovation, and can lead to lower prices in the marketplace.”
Branded PPC Campaigns
If you are determined to use your competitor’s name as a keyword, a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign is usually the safest way to go. Competition isn’t as aggressive as non-branded keywords, so you’re more likely to be seen without the FTC risk.
“Google will not investigate or restrict the use of trademark terms in keywords, even if a trademark complaint is received.” – Google’s Trademarks Policy
Translation: You can use your competitor’s name as a keyword, but don’t talk about them in your ad text. You don’t want to hijack their name, reputation, or make it appear as if you’re associated with them whatsoever.
If your competitor has a generic or commonly used name, Google has your back. You can use the term in its “ordinary meaning” rather than in the context of the trademark. Advertisers can also use a trademarked name in ad text if they’ve received authorization from the mark holder. That’s good news for retailers who want to advertise third-party products.
SEO Tactics with PMG
SEO is an infinite subject. It’s constantly evolving. SEO best practices change as search engines become more intuitive. It’s a topic that you have to keep tabs on. Otherwise, your methods may be obsolete. We want to connect our clients to the right resources to keep your company’s SEO strategy fresh.
Pesola Media Group offers professional SEO services that get results. Our goal is to increase search engine rankings and website traffic through keyword-rich content on the front of your website, and technical SEO on the backend. We have SEO clients all over the country, from one-person operations to large, internationally recognized businesses. They come from a diverse range of industries too. We’ve strategically optimized their websites to align with their unique goals.
What Is SEO
SEO is the practice of increasing organic search engine rankings. As your website moves up the page in search results, you will receive more visitors, and ideally more qualified users. The goal is to match the right people with the right pages on your website.
Black Hat SEO
Black Hat SEO is a way to increase page rank in search engines through means that violate search engines’ terms of service. Although Black Hat SEO tactics may dramatically increase search results quickly, Google sees these practices as deceptive.