Court Slams Competitive Metatagging and Keyword Advertising–Soilworks v. Midwest Industrial Supply

By Eric Goldman

Soilworks, LLC v. Midwest Indus. Supply, Inc., 2008 WL 3286975 (D. Ariz. Aug. 7, 2008)

All too frequently, we get an opinion where the judge clearly didn’t grasp current implementations of keyword advertising and metatagging. Often, it’s simply a bad luck of the draw; in other cases, the defense lawyers may have failed to educate the judge properly (IMO, the Axiom case is an example of the latter).

This opinion, an outgrowth of patent litigation involving two competitors in the soil anti-erosion business, is a good example of a judge who just doesn’t get it. The advertiser’s misdeed is that it “uses the [trademarked] phrase ‘soil sement’ in keyword advertising on an Internet search engine and uses variations of the phrase in metatags for its websites.” The opinion doesn’t specify if the advertiser triggered ads on the term “soil sement” or displayed the trademark in the ad copy, nor does the opinion specify which metatags (keyword, description, others) contained the “soil sement” references.

Those “details” don’t matter to this judge, though, because the initial interest confusion doctrine provides a cure-all for any factual or analytical deficiencies. Even though there was zero evidence that the advertiser’s behavior actually or might have confused consumers one bit, the court says that the potential for attention diversion from keyword advertising and metatagging was sufficient to constitute initial interest confusion (“the wrong in a metatag initial interest confusion case is … the diversion of the consumer’s initial attention to the defendant’s website using the plaintiff’s trademark and goodwill”). Unfortunately for the analytical rigor of the judge’s discussion, it’s already well-established that (1) keyword metatags have no meaningful diversionary power, and (2) as I’ve explained here, it is impossible to conclude that consumers were diverted until we can confirm where the consumers were trying to go in the first place (and a simple keyword search can’t tell us that). (There are plenty more bases to attack the “logic” here; I’m trying to be selective). As a result, this court’s reliance on attention diversion concerns is anachronistic at best and pernicious at worst.

This opinion is too inscrutable to draw many useful lessons from it. However, it reinforces a broader lesson that there remains significant legal downside, and minimal marketing upside, to including competitive trademarks in keyword metatags. Therefore, I continue to strongly suggest that advertisers should avoid this practice.

For more, see Rebecca’s commentary, where she says she’s “depressed” by rulings like this.

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