Search Engine Advertiser Litigation Updates

By Eric Goldman

Recently, there were intermediate rulings in two long-standing cases by search engine advertisers against search engines.

CLRB Hanson Industries, LLC v. Google Inc., 2008 WL 2079200 (N.D. Cal. May 14, 2008)

This lawsuit involves the Google AdWords feature that allows advertisers to set “daily budgets.” Google doesn’t enforce the daily budgets strictly; instead, it gives itself the permission to deliver up to 20% overage in any day and credit the overage against future performance. The lawsuit was initially filed in August 2005. In August 2007, the judge issued an important preliminary ruling that had three main holdings:

1) Google’s AdWords contract was a binding contract.

2) Much of the breach of contract claim was dismissed, but the judge left open claims by advertisers of less than 1 month, advertisers who ended their campaign in a partial month, and advertisers who paused their campaign.

3) The false advertising claim was left open.

Because the August 2007 substantially limited the remedies available to advertisers, I expected that ruling to prompt the parties to settle. But here we are in May 2008, and the parties are still going at it. This month’s ruling was largely procedural in that it attempted to clean up any lingering confusion over the August 2007 ruling. As a result, it really doesn’t break much new ground; instead, the opinion largely reiterates the main rulings from the August 2007 opinion. Rebecca has more thoughts on the false advertising aspects.

In re Yahoo! Litigation, 2008 WL 1882786 (C.D. Cal. April 21, 2008)

This lawsuit got a lot of press when it was first filed in May 2006 as an example of “syndication fraud.” See my initial post. It relates to Yahoo’s display of ads on pages promoted by adware and on typosquatted and domain name parking pages. The advertisers believed these pages had lower quality traffic than other pages, and this disrupted their expectations.

In the past two years, the case has gone through various procedural shenanigans. This ruling addresses Yahoo’s motion to dismiss the second amended complaint on a number of grounds.

Yahoo invoked a clause in its advertising agreement barring class litigation against it. Under prevailing California law, these clauses are probably unenforceable in consumer contracts; but there hasn’t been a lot of litigation over these clauses in business-to-business contexts, especially because it’s hard to argue unconscionability in B2B contexts. The court punts the issue on Yahoo’s motion to dismiss, saying that it needs more facts about the parties’ respective positions, which makes this issue more appropriate for resolution on summary judgment. Tom O’Toole has more to say about this issue.

Yahoo also tries to dismiss the breach of contract claim over its alleged promise of targeted ad placement, but the court refuses to dismiss because California law freely allows extrinsic evidence to explain unambiguous contractual terms. However, though the court didn’t dismiss the claim, I think the plaintiffs will have difficulty prevailing on this contract breach claim because, as the court implicitly concludes, the plain language of the contract weighs heavily against their arguments.

Yahoo made several other efforts to dismiss clams, and the court rejects all but one of them (it dismissed the claim of civil conspiracy). Because so much of the lawsuit survived, this motion to dismiss ruling appears to be largely a win for the plaintiffs. However, I still think this remains a low-merit lawsuit because it’s disingenuous for advertisers to complain when they got everything they paid for. Further, two years later, this lawsuit now seems strangely anachronistic given that the Great Adware Wars of the mid-2000s are over.