Lawsuit Over Meta Tag Keywords

Lawsuit Over Meta Tag Keywords

From The Search Engine Report
Sept. 3, 1997

(Please also see the Meta Tag Lawsuits page for the latest information on this and other cases)

A lawsuit has been filed over the use of someone's trademark in the meta tags of another company's web page. The law firm of Oppedahl & Larson has gone after several companies that used its name within its tags.

The suit already has people wondering if they are violating trademark law by using competitor's or trademarked names in meta tags. But the issues raised are not clear-cut. Moreover, this lawsuit and future ones like it are quite likely unnecessary, if the situation is simply treated from a search engine spamming perspective.

Many people seem to think that merely adding a term to a meta tag is enough to make a page appear well for that term. This is almost never the case.

For example, imagine I have a page about sporting equipment and I add a single instance of the term "Rollerblades" to the meta keywords tag. The word itself never appears in my HTML body text. It is extremely unlikely the page will appear when a search is done for that term. There are simply too many other pages rich in body copy content for that term. They are more likely to come up first.

Chances are, the other pages that do well will be using the term "Rollerblades" in an accepted manner. Someone who sells Rollerblades may have an online catalog of offerings. Using the term in body copy will be a necessity, and adding it to the meta tags is an acceptable way to classify the page. The trademark owner is unlikely to have a claim for misuse, nor a reason to complain for search engine spamming if the page should do well.

In contrast, the dispute in this case is with companies that used the trademarked terms for no legitimate reason. The pages cited in the suit are for web design and hosting firms that seemed to think that using the firm's name might bring them some traffic. The law firm deals with Internet domain disputes, along with other intellectual property issues. Assumedly, the companies believed adding the name to their meta tags might find people looking for domain dispute information, who in turn might have been interested in web hosting services.

Clearly, this wasn't a legitimate use. Had the law firm reported the page to any of the search engines, they would likely have been banned from the listings because of an attempt to be misleading.

Most search engines do not require that the terms used in meta tags be also used in body copy -- one of the reasons for creating meta tags was to help web designers have a place to classify their pages if the body copy was not sufficient. However, all the search engines will require that the tags be related to page content. An attempt to be misleading isn't tolerated.

Moreover, the particular pages cited were loaded with spam. The law firm name was used over and over, along with many other terms. Any of the search engines would have thrown these out and quite possibly banned the site.

The law firm says its filing the suit to help protect others. Perhaps so, and it will certainly be helpful as a means for others to think twice before using trademarked terms. But had the situation been dealt with from a spamming point of view, a lawsuit would likely be unnecessary. The search engines themselves would have tossed out these pages.

Meanwhile, from a legal view, the main issue cited is unlikely to hold up in court:

"Such use by defendants of web pages bearing a substantially identical mark to plaintiff's mark 'OPPEDAHL & LARSON' is misleading and is likely to cause confusion and mistake, and to deceive the public into believing falsely that defendants' web pages are connected with and/or sponsored or authorized by Plaintiff."

The tags are used to possibly help the site come up for those terms, but the page title and meta description clearly do not represent these pages in the search engine listings as being part of the law firm's site. There is no way that anyone viewing the listings would have thought these pages were part of the law firm's site.

Should you stop using trademarked terms in your meta tags? Probably not, if you have a legitimate reason to use them. But remember, they aren't going to help you unless you have relevant copy on your pages. Otherwise, you'll probably only do well by attempting to spam the search engines. Your success might bring a trademark lawyer coming after you, but even more feared should be the chance you find your site banned for search engine spamming.

Oppedahl & Larson Complaint
Civil Action No. 97-Z-1592, July 23, 1997

The actual complaint, along with examples of the pages and their listings in AltaVista.

Trademark Battles Simmer Behind Sites
Web Week, Aug. 25, 1997

Keywords said to violate trademark, Aug. 27, 1997,4,13799,00.html