Four out of five online travel retailers suffered brand “hijacking” in a survey conducted last month and the number of incidents has doubled in the past year.
Brand hijacking occurs when an online advertiser pays to intercept the search enquiries for a rival company on Google, often using the competitor’s brand name in its own online advert.
The survey by digital consultancy Nucleus follows Google’s relaxation of its trademark policy last year. It aimed to assess how the change, coupled with the recession, had affected firms’ online behaviour.
Nucleus studied 124 online tour operators, agencies and travel providers – including TUI Travel, Thomas Cook, lastminute.com and ABTA-member travel agents.
It found 80% were victims of brand hijacking – up from 67% in a similar survey in May 2008 – and the number of interception attempts had risen from 202 to 467.
Almost one in four (22%) of hijacking attempts involved use of the target’s brand name in advertising – up from 17% in 2008.
Google removed restrictions on advertisers using trademarks as keyword triggers in search advertising in the UK and Ireland in May last year, although restrictions remain elsewhere in Europe pending a decision by the European Court of Justice. Companies were previously able to challenge such hijacking, but UK sites can now use any trademark as a keyword.
The study sought to distinguish between “unintentional”, “possible” and “intended” interceptions, identifying “tell-tale” signs of the final category.
The resulting report, The Great Online Holiday Hijack 2009, notes Thomas Cook was “one of the few well-known brands with zero interceptors” after adopting “a zero-tolerance approach” to hijacking in the past. By contrast, Going Places and Cheapflights were two of the top-three victims.
The report dubs the hijackers “brand parasites” and found 23% of those surveyed had intercepted rival brands themselves. But it concludes: “Most of the interceptors were small, low-budget travel sites that possess little, if any, brand awareness of their own. However, the most prolific brand interceptor appears to be a well-known Online Travel Agent.”
Nucleus managing director Peter Matthews said: “The data shows a rapidly increasing number of operators or their agencies are resorting to using competitors’ brand names as keyword triggers for their own Google campaigns.
“In tough market conditions, it would seem anything goes. The gloves have come off in the travel sector.”