Google Gets Significant Win in AdWords/Parked Domains Case

By Eric Goldman

In re Google AdWords Litigation, 2012 WL 28068 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2012)

Google defeated class certification in an AdWords-related case over Google’s placement of ads on parked domains. This almost certainly ends this case in practice, as few if any advertisers will find it worth continuing the case on their own. This ruling also takes us closer to the end of litigation wars over parked domains.

The advertisers sued Google for placing AdWords ads on parked domains and error pages and not adequately disclosing these facts.

The court finds standing under both California UCL/FAL and Article III based the named plaintiffs’ allegations that they bought advertising they wouldn’t have bought if they knew where Google was going to put it. This was also good enough to confer standing for the unnamed plaintiffs; the court says that “where one class representative in a UCL or FAL class action has already established Article III standing, the court need not analyze the standing of unnamed class members.”

The court also finds numerosity, typicality, adequacy, and commonality (on the question of “whether Google’s alleged omissions were misleading to a reasonable AdWords customer”). However, the court rejects class certification on predominance grounds. Even though there are common legal questions among the advertisers, their idiosyncratic factual questions are more important than the common legal questions. Specifically, because only some advertisers were financially harmed by Google’s placement of ads on parked domains and error pages, the court would have to investigate each advertiser’s results to determine if restitution were appropriate. Further, because each click was auctioned off and sold for a constantly changing price, it would be hard to calculate the “but for” pricing that advertisers would have paid. Plus, not every advertiser is seeking click conversion; presumably (although not articulated in the court’s opinion) some advertisers compute their bids on the branding value of ads. The court thus concludes this discussion by saying “any effort to determine what advertisers “would have paid” under a different set of circumstances requires a complex and highly individualized analysis of advertiser behavior for each particular ad that was placed.”

To fix this problem, advertisers’ counsel suggested a variety of restitution formulae that relied on blanket assumptions applicable to all advertisers. The court rejects these categorical approaches, saying “[s]ince the purpose of restitution is to return class members to status quo, the amount of restitution due must account for the benefits received from ads placed on parked domains and error pages.” This too requires a per-advertiser assessment.

Google continues to make substantial progress cleaning up its AdWords litigation docket. Recently, it got rid of Woods v. Google over click fraud and improper pricing discounts; it defeated class certification in FPX v. Google over trademark triggering; and the Ninth Circuit upheld its settlement of the CLRB Hanson case. Even so, it’s also clear that litigation forays by advertisers will be a perennial aspect of Google’s life going forward; partially due to Google’s occasional corner-cutting, but mostly due to advertisers’ wish that they could get unlimited traffic at no cost. Then again, the plaintiffs’ bar will be sharing some of that joy with Facebook too.

This lawsuit was just one of several lawsuits over the legitimacy of parked domains. I’ve criticized Google before for its AdSense for Domains program, which fosters an ecosystem that motivates questionable domain name registrant behavior while providing little if any real value to consumers. From my perspective, it’s pathetically anachronistic that Google still offers its parked domain program–what is this, 2004? Time for Google to grow up a little more.

While I think it’s sad Google can’t wean itself from the questionable revenues it derives from its parked domains program, I think it’s even sadder to see plaintiffs trying to attack the parked domains ecosystems using proxy defendants like intermediate service providers rather than just going after the domain name owners directly. See, e.g., Vulcan Golf v. Google; In re Yahoo; uBid v. GoDaddy; etc. Let’s hope this ruling discourages plaintiffs from bringing future proxy battles over parked domains.