Search engines sued over 'pay-for-placement' results

The maker of a popular weight-loss system filed suit against four search engines this week, alleging that their policy of letting advertisers pay to appear in top-ranked search results violated U.S. federal and state trademark and fair-competition laws.

Mark Nutritionals Inc., the company that sells the Body Solutions weight loss system, filed suit against AltaVista Co., Kanoodle.com, FindWhat.com and Overture Services Inc. in a San Antonio, Texas court Monday, asking for at least US$10 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages from each company.

The plaintiff claimed that when "Body Solutions" is typed into the search engines' query field, rival sites using the Body Solutions name appear ahead of the company's official site. Mark Nutritionals is accusing the search engines of allowing advertisers to employ a "bait-and-switch" scheme whereby companies can use the Body Solutions name on their site and then pay to appear as a top query result. Not only does this infringe on Mark Nutritionals' trademark and violate fair competition rules, the company said, but it also confuses consumers.

AltaVista refused to comment on the suit Thursday. No one from the three other search engines were available for comment.

Danny Sullivan, a consultant and journalist who maintains the Search Engine Watch Web site, which gives tips and information on searching the Web, said Thursday that "every major search engine in the U.S." employs pay-for-placement search results and that this complaint is nothing new. However, he believes that Mark Nutritionals may have its best shot at winning the case on the grounds of consumer confusion. The trademark violation argument could be more difficult, he said, given free speech and comparative advertising laws.

A Web site claiming that its weight loss product is better than Body Solutions' product is protected under comparative advertising, for example.

But consumers searching for truth and objectivity have apparently gotten the wrong idea about search engines. Overture, formerly known as GoTo, is not really a search engine at all. The company bills itself as a pay-for-performance search provider which allows companies to bid for search-result placement based on relevant keywords. And a handful of big name search engines incorporate Overture's results, including AltaVista, and those of America Online Inc., Lycos Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Netscape Communications Corp.

Kanoodle and FindWhat are also more akin to advertisers than search engines.

In fact, Sullivan said that AltaVista was the only true search engine among the defendants, and added that he believes that they got singled out just because Mark Nutritionals' Body Solutions did not appear in the site's top-ranked listings.

"AltaVista just got tossed in. It's unfair," said Sullivan. "Of the four (defendants), the case against AltaVista will be the weakest."

It remains to be seen how the plaintiff's consumer confusion and trademark violation claims play out, however.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Scarlet Pruitt

PC World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?