Groupon Hit With Two Lanham Act Lawsuits, and One Takes Google Along for the Ride

By Eric Goldman

Groupion, LLC v. Groupon, Inc., 3:11-cv-00870-EMC (N.D. Cal. complaint filed Feb. 24, 2011)

San Francisco Comprehensive Tours, LLC v. Groupon, Inc., CV-1300 (N.D. Cal. complaint filed March 17, 2011)

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A company doesn’t reach a purported $6B valuation without generating some angst. Groupon’s marketing litigators will be earning their keep.

The Groupion Suit

Groupion is CRM software vendor. It’s a pretty young company itself. having registered its domain name in 2007. It’s unhappy with big spotlight on its friend without the “i,” including being irked when Google suggests “Groupon” for searches on “Groupion.”

It seems like the world should be big enough for Groupion and Groupon to coexist given their different spellings and market niches. I’m more interested in the fact that Groupion also named Google as a defendant. Apparently Groupon is buying “Groupion” as a keyword, so Groupion sues both Groupon and Google for these ads.

Side note: why is Groupon buying the keyword Groupion? Is it because consumers often make that misspelling? I also noticed that LivingSocial showed up as a keyword advertiser when I searched “Groupion” today. Will LivingSocial be the next defendant in Groupion’s quest?

The complaint itself is minimalist drafting in a bad way. The actual claims appear to be cut-and-paste from a form book; the complaint simply recites the claim elements without applying any of the legal standards to the alleged facts. So it’s a little hard to tell exactly why Groupion is beefing with Google. I imagine Groupion will have to do a better job explaining what Google did wrong if it wants to survive a motion to dismiss.

Groupion’s pursuit of Google in an otherwise garden-variety trademark case reminded me a little of the Parts Geek v. US Auto Parts lawsuit, where a competitor-vs.-competitor suit similarly ensnared Google as a collateral victim. Parts Geek ended up voluntarily dropping Google, which is what I imagine Groupion will do eventually. Why tangle with a $30B/year company if you don’t really need to???

San Francisco Comprehensive Tours suit

The plaintiff offers San Francisco area tours. It has successfully bid on keywords such as “San Francisco Tours,” “Alcatraz Tours” and “Napa Wine Tours” for years. Then, starting in September, Groupon started bidding on these terms as well–and ranking very well, driving up the plaintiff’s costs. The plaintiff is unhappy that Groupon uses those phrases in its resulting ad copy, although it asserts Groupon rarely offers “tours” as such. This made me wonder if Groupon was broad-matching to the place name and then automatically filling the ad copy with the search term as a variable. The complaint never addresses this possibility.

Even if Groupon is broad-matching, the plaintiff’s beef could be legitimate if Groupon’s ad copy constitutes false advertising. The complaint (para. 17) gives the example where, in response to the keyword “Alcatraz Tickets,” Groupon’s ad copy read “Alcatraz Tickets – 1 ridiculously huge coupon a day / Do Alcatraz CA at 50-90% Off.” Yet, the ad that day was for acting lessons. The complaint further gripes about the resulting landing page, which it says are essentially content-free.

In this sense, the complaint tells a pretty good story that Groupon is using an algorithmic-driven ad campaign that has gone awry, much like eBay’s algorithmic AdWords campaign used to reach farcical results. Even if Groupon wins this lawsuit, I hope they take a closer look at their AdWords campaign to make sure it’s not generating nonsensical ads. What’s less clear to me is why Google’s ad relevancy scores aren’t adequately punishing Groupon if this is the case. The complaint offers some hypotheses for Groupon’s high rankings, none of which seemed very convincing to me. If Google drops the boom on Groupon for AdWords spamming, Groupon could end up being very unhappy itself.

The plaintiff alleges violations of the Lanham Act, California’s false advertising law (B&P 17500) and other claims. Wisely, the plaintiff doesn’t try to drag Google into this lawsuit.

The Pending Google AdWords Cases

One update of note: in the FPX and John Beck Amazing Profits cases, the court held a consolidated hearing regarding class certification. The court does not appear to have issued its ruling yet.

The roster of pending AdWords cases (I most recently double-checked the status of pending cases on March 27, 2011):

* Ezzo v. Google

* Rescuecom v. Google

* FPX v. Google

* John Beck Amazing Profits v. Google and the companion Google v. John Beck Amazing Profits

* Stratton Faxon v. Google

* Soaring Helmet v. Bill Me

* Ascentive v. Google

* Jurin v. Google 1.0 (voluntarily dismissed), succeeded by Jurin v. Google 2.0

* Rosetta Stone v. Google [on appeal]

* Flowbee v. Google

* Parts Geek v. US Auto Parts

* Dazzlesmile v. Epic

* Pathak v. ICG

* Groupion v. Groupon

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