Hiding in Plain Sight: The Brand and Compliance Implications of Paid Search on Lead Generation

By Sam EngelDecember 15, 2014

Concerns about working with lead generation publishers typically revolve around a few main questions: “Are my publishers providing qualified leads?”, “Am I paying too much?” and, increasingly, “Are the leads generated in an ethical and compliant manner?” As lead buyers become ever more aware of the risks of working with non-compliant publishers, affiliates, and sub-affiliates, this last question comes to the forefront. It also begs some follow-up questions: How can I ensure my publishers are in compliance with my terms and with FTC, FCC, and CFPB regulations? How can I maintain a state of compliance in the long run?


The potentially devastating financial impact of an FTC or TCPA lawsuit should be on any executive’s mind. All companies that buy leads should have an extensive and exhaustive vetting, auditing, and monitoring system in place to guard against the risks of non-compliance on publishers’ and partners’ websites. But, while it is absolutely necessary for lead buyers to monitor their partners’ webpages for regulatory compliance, either through a manual process or with a software tool (disclosure: BrandVerity provides a Content Monitoring service for this purpose), that’s not what I want to draw your attention to today. Instead, I’d like to focus on how publishers target brand terms in paid search. It doesn’t get as much attention as regulatory issues, but it may actually be more pervasive. It can result in many issues: inconsistent messaging, brand dilution, payments to unscrupulous lead generators, and potentially even regulatory problems. It also happens in a place we all know very well: the front page of Google.


Paid Search Presents Its Own Set of Challenges

Concerns about publishers’ regulatory compliance often overshadow ongoing brand concerns. After all, a major fine or lawsuit sounds more daunting than a publisher outranking you on Google. But should that be the sole concern? While each individual branding issue doesn’t compare to a regulatory investigation, those exposures add up over time. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of regulatory compliance here, but rather to emphasize that the long-term effects of brand dilution can be dangerous on a similar level. Whether you hike up fifty 100-foot hills or one 5,000-foot mountain, you’re still climbing up 5,000 feet.


Deceptive practices in paid search often hide in plain sight: right on the first page of a company’s Google hits. While many companies know that they need to crawl every page of a publisher’s website to check for false promises and non-compliant language, many are unaware that every time a customer Googles them—the most basic way of finding something online—that customer may see a whole array of problematic ads and false claims. Furthermore, much like how publishers’ web content changes over time, the paid search landscape is dynamic. Advertisers can target different keywords, geographic locations, times of day, and more—and can change their ad copy at any time.


But why do these ads matter? What do they have to do with compliance? For lead buyers, paid search becomes particularly important on their branded keywords (any search that includes their brand name—a brief primer is available here). Publishers often place ads on lead buyers’ branded keywords, typically using the brand’s trademark in their ad copy and resembling the ads placed by the brand itself. In the Insurance category of our recent Report on the State of Branded Keywords, we actually found publishers showing up about as often as the brands themselves on Google. And that was just on very core brand terms (brand name, domain, and misspellings)—it’s likely that publishers advertise more heavily on longer-tail branded searches.


Let’s Look at Some Examples

So, what does this actually look like? Here are some examples of ads that came up on searches for “farmers insurance” and “wells fargo mortgages”:




Each of these ads uses the brand’s trademark (or some variation of it). This creates the impression that the site works directly with that brand. One might expect to be taken to a landing page that exclusively promotes Farmers Insurance in the first example, or Wells Fargo in the other examples. But in reality, all three ads lead to generic lead capture pages, without any mention of either brand. It’s still possible that these leads will ultimately be sold to each respective brand, but it’s also very possible that it could be sold to a competitor. Furthermore, these ads also include the brands’ trademarks in the Display URL (the line of green text in the middle). More specifically, they use the brand term at the beginning of the Display URL where a subdomain would normally be—even though these sites don’t have subdomains devoted to the brands involved here. This is most likely an attempt by the publishers to make their ads look similar to the brands’ own ads (and therefore hard to distinguish).


As we can see from these examples, when publishers bid on brand terms they can create a variety of problems for brands. First, more competition drives up the cost of advertising on your own brand terms. It also reduces traffic to the brand’s site and the number of leads that it earns directly. Second, there is a significant risk that after using a brand’s name to draw attention to its ad, a publisher may sell the leads it captures to that brand’s competitors. Further, even if this lead is sold to the brand the customer searched for, the brand will end up paying a much higher cost for acquiring the lead. And finally, Display URL manipulation and bait-and-switch tactics undermine brand integrity, clarity and value.


Even setting aside the financial implications of inflated cost-per-lead, these ads seem problematic purely from a branding perspective. If a consumer navigates to a site thinking it either is the brand or is affiliated with the brand, any negative impressions they have will immediately circle back to the brand. If they arrive at a confusing or unprofessional landing page, let alone a deceptive one, that can seriously damage brand loyalty and reputation. The brand has lost control over how its offers are presented, where and how its trademarks are used in the ad copy or landing page, and how prominently it is featured.


Compliance Questions Surface as Well

In regulated industries, publishers’ ads also potentially raise compliance issues. One of the Wells Fargo examples above, for example, implies that Wells Fargo is offering certain fixed rates or no fee guarantees. In this case, Wells Fargo may be or they may not—the key point is that the publisher could easily relay information that isn’t accurate or that conveys a misleading impression. In fact, paid search tools and tactics such as Dynamic Keyword Insertion make it easy to generate ads that vary based on the user’s search terms. This makes it very possible to make a false association between a brand name and an offer, promotion, or set of inaccurate details. For example, while a publisher may dynamically insert a brand name into part of their ad, they may use a standard boilerplate offer or rate in the rest of their ad copy. This text could simply reflect the best offer that the publisher has available, rather than the offer that the customer could actually expect from the brand they searched for. Revisiting the examples from earlier in the post, this seems to be the explanation behind the 2.7% rate that FreeRateUpdate.com associates with Wells Fargo, despite the fact that it doesn’t mention Wells Fargo on its landing page.


Visibility into Paid Search Helps Fill in Gaps

If there’s one general takeaway that I’d like to get across, it’s that more visibility reduces risks. By taking a proactive stance about monitoring, you put yourself in a position to detect issues early and help your case if it comes to a regulatory investigation. As a corollary, I’d also suggest that monitoring multiple marketing channels is generally preferable over monitoring a single channel. When the tolerance for violations is low, you want to err on the side of being more comprehensive.


Unfortunately, non-compliant publishers who rely heavily on paid search may not be detectable by typical monitoring methods. In paid search, advertisers often send traffic to landing pages that aren’t within their main sitemap. You wouldn’t be able to access these landing pages by navigating to the root domain and then clicking around or even by doing a site search. The pages would essentially be invisible. Furthermore, while this tactic won’t be used by every single site, unscrupulous publishers may know that they can cover their tracks in this way, making them more likely to pursue such a strategy.


Visibility into paid search may also help identify how publishers are sourcing their leads. While many lead sellers do not provide information about what domains they use to generate leads, you can create more transparency by gathering information about which sites are bidding on your branded keywords. With this knowledge in your pocket, you can ask pointed questions to the networks and publishers you work with and ensure that these partners are truly adding value.


Ensure Compliance, Protect Your Brand

The key to ensuring compliance is always two-fold—awareness and monitoring—and the key to brand protection is precisely the same. For companies eager to reap the full benefits of working with lead generation publishers, it is crucial that they be aware of their partners’ activities both in website content and in paid search in order to ensure legal compliance, appropriate customer service and satisfaction, and consistent brand messaging. While the fear of lawsuits drives many of the decisions around monitoring, remembering that brand dilution and dissatisfied or confused customers can have an equally negative impact on marketing can result in improved results and relationships with publishers in the long run


Have any questions or comments about the topics discussed here? Please contact us at BrandVerity! You can also check out our series of Lead Gen posts, which discuss many of the issues we’ve highlighted here in greater detail.


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