Overture filed a lawsuit against Google last month, claiming that Google has infringed on its patents that apply to bid-for-placement search ranking and for account management tools.
It seems unlikely that Overture is going to win, given that Google doesn't have a bid-for-placement product that Overture claims is protected by its patent. To understand this, let's look at a key part of the patent's abstract:
"The system and method of the present invention then compares this bid amount with all other bid amounts for the same search term, and generates a rank value for all search listings having that search term. The rank value generated by the bidding process determines where the network information providers listing will appear on the search results list page that is generated in response to a query of the search term by a searcher located at a client computer on the computer network. A higher bid by a network information provider will result in a higher rank value and a more advantageous placement."
Nothing at Google operates in this way. The Google AdWords Select program does use bidding as a component of how people are listed, but the results are absolutely not ranked by bid amount. Instead, they are ranked in order of bid amount multiplied by clickthrough rate.
It's important to note that it is not the abstract that will count in a legal case but instead the individual base claims that are made. What will remain to be seen is whether the base claims are to cover any system that uses bids in any way or whether the patent will be ruled limited only to systems that use a pure bidding model.
A thread at the Webmaster World forums also points out another interesting twist. The Overture patent covers search results, and Google's supposed infringement takes place within its advertising area. Again, from the abstract:
"A system and method for enabling information providers using a computer network such as the Internet to influence a position for a search listing within a search result list generated by an Internet search engine."
Just a technicality? Maybe not. When Overture launched, the company was very proud that it had a technology to order its search results, that of using bid for placement. To this day, it still refers to its results as search listings, rather than ads.
In contrast, Google makes a clear delineations between what its search listings are as opposed to its advertising. And in no way are Google's search listings influenced by bidding.
The suit also claims infringement over account management technology, but one would suspect that the differences in how Google operates and Overture operates will make this a tough fight, as well.
Overture sues Google over search patent
News.com, April 5, 2002
Google responds that it hasn't infringed on Overture's patents and more about the case.
Overture Files Patent Infringement
Webmaster World, April 5, 2002
Thoughts from site owners and promoters.
System and method for influencing a position on a search result list generated by a computer network search engine
United States Patent 6,269,361, July 31, 2001
So how about that patent? Read the text for yourself.
FindWhat.com Takes on Rival's Search Patent
InternetNews.com, Jan. 24, 2002
Overture has also filed suit against competitor FindWhat, which does use a pure bid-for-placement ranking system. However, FindWhat is challenging how Overture obtained its patent.
Search Engines and Legal Issues: Patents
Patents have been raised as an issue in search technology before, but the Overture cases are unique, in that they are the first time patents have actually been used to challenge a major search engine and competitor.