Keyword Ownership: What It Is and Where It's Headed?
by Richard Zwicky

Have you ever received one of those silly emails that offers to 
let you own a keyword? Silly question. How many such emails do
you get every day?

A number of such services regularly email me offering keyword 
ownership of premium keywords for $300/year. They say that 
anyone can type the keyword I bought in the address bar of 
Internet Explorer, instead of typing in a URL, and they will 
be sent directly to my site. In total, about 3% of Internet 
users worldwide have implemented this system in one form or 

Data shows that between 4% and 7% of search queries are 
performed by entering something in the address bar. By default 
for I.E. users, these searches are automatically routed through 
to MSN search. However, over time many of us have unknowingly 
installed software that re-routes these search queries to other 
search portals such as iGetNet or others. This often happens if 
you've installed any file sharing software. We have all heard or 
read about how many extra 'features' come with programs like 
Kazaa. This means that your default search from the address bar 
may no longer be MSN, but the basic principle still applies. Of 
the queries that are actually run from an address bar, at least 
half are unintentionally performed by people mis-typing the 
desired URL. 

So how exactly do these address bar plug-ins work? There are 
many companies offering this kind of service with each selling 
the very same keywords to different, and sometimes competing 
clients. To make things worse, the keywords you might buy 
will only work with the issuing company's proprietary address 
bar plug-in. Moreover, in order to provide keyword search 
functionality from the address bar, each of these service 
providers needs to get individual Internet users to download 
and install their plug-in and then remember to run searches 
from the address bar.  

How effective can a marketing strategy of this nature be when 
the various tools are not interchangeable, numerous competitors 
are selling the same keywords to different companies and only 
a small fraction of Internet users are being targeted? If your 
ad is being displayed because it's similar to the search query, 
are you paying for irrelevant results? This can happen. If there 
isn't a perfect match to a search query, the next closest match 
may be displayed.  

Competing with these companies is any search engine that offers 
its own toolbar; none of which are tied into any of these keyword 
ownership schemes. You can download a fr^ee toolbar from any 
number of engines and easily run searches on any keyword or 
phrase, obtaining that search engine's selection of closest 
matches from all the web sites they have indexed. 

Who Started This?

Started in 1998, Realnames was the first company that tied 
searching via the address bar to a web browser. At the time, 
it was touted as a value-added solution for businesses around 
the world that wanted their products found quickly but didn't 
want their customers wading through a sea of Web addresses.  

In part, it was deemed necessary because so few web site 
operators were search engine savvy, and fewer still knew 
anything about search engine optimization and promotion. 
The Realnames solution allowed a web site operator to buy 
a keyword which when typed into the I.E. address toolbar 
automatically sent the I.E. user to the web site that owned 
the keyword.   

Realnames hoped to profit from businesses that wanted to reach 
Internet users who found it simpler to type keywords into a 
browser address bar than to remember URLs or to use a standard 
search interface.  

Unfortunately for the company, the service was entirely 
dependent on Microsoft and, when Microsoft stopped supporting 
the technology in May 2002, the company was forced to close. 
Unlike today's keyword vendors, the Realnames service did not 
offer a downloadable plug-in but was instead directly integrated
into Internet Explorer by Microsoft.

The Legal Question

Each of the companies offering these services has a policy
designed to ensure that a web site can only buy keywords related
to that site's content, but their review process is not designed 
to keep cybersquatters from hijacking popular names and products. 
This means that the rights to copyrighted material like "Pepsi" 
or generic words like "business" could end up in the hands of 
the first buyer, not the trademark or copyright owner. For these 
keyword ownership services to police copyright and trademark 
infringement would not be cost effective or practical. Thus, the 
purchaser may be left liable for any copyright infingement 
penalties, whether intentional or not.

The legal right of companies to 'sell' or rent terms was 
settled in the summer of 1999 by  the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the Ninth Circuit, in Playboy v Excite. In a precedent setting 
ruling, Judge Stotler of the United States District Court in 
Santa, Ana, California, dismissed a lawsuit brought by Playboy 
Enterprises against the search engine Excite, Inc. and Netscape.
The ruling limited the online rights of trademark holders, 
recognizing that a trademark may be used without authorization 
by search engines in advertising sales practices.

What About Within Meta Tags?

Is it illegal to use trademarked terms in your meta tags? 
Sometimes. The problem occurs with how and why you are using 
the terms. Web sites that use the tags in a deceptive manner 
have lost legal battles. However, legitimate reasons to use the 
terms have resulted in successful defenses. Again, two Playboy 
cases play crucial roles. In one a former Playmate, Terri Welles
used the terms "Playmate" and "Playboy" on her web pages and 
within her meta tags, and the Court felt she had a legitimate 
right to use them to accurately describe herself, and to ensure 
that the search engines could catalog her web site properly 
within their databases.

In a separate case involving Playboy, the firm was able to prove 
trademark infringement, based on use of their trademark term 
'Playboy' in meta tags, url and excessively within content on 
the web site. The defendant had no claim to the term, and was 
personally profiting from its use.

In Summary

It is clear that, if you have a legitimate reason to use a 
trademarked word or phrase in your web site, you can. You may 
also 'rent' the ownership from one of the keyword ownership 
companies. Be careful, though, it is possible that you may get 

Does the technology work? Yes, but only for some of the up to 
3% of Internet users worldwide who have installed any one of a 
variety of competing plug ins that enable this type of searching. 
I stress a fraction of the 3%, as you would need to buy the 
keywords from each individual vendor to ensure reaching all 3%. 

Richard Zwicky is a founder and the CEO of Metamend Software,  
( a Victoria B.C. based firm whose 
cutting edge Search Engine Optimization software has been 
recognized around the world as a leader in its field. Employing 
a staff of 10, the firm's business comes from around the world, 
with clients from every continent. Most recently the company was
recognized for their geo-locational, or LBS technology, which 
correlates online businesses with their physical locations.