Google searches have become the key battleground for courting Internet shoppers, and a Texas lawsuit involving search terms sold by Google demonstrates the potential for Hatfield-and-McCoy battles among dealerships nationwide.
It also raises thorny ethical questions about Internet marketing for dealerships and the vendors that handle their online marketing.
On the rapidly expanding frontier of search marketing, dealership behavior is testing Google policy, trademark law and state regulations -- and the stakes are enormous: Two of every three visitors to a dealership Web site get there directly from a Google search, industry statistics show.
In the Texas lawsuit, Group 1 Automotive, which owns Rockwall Dodge in Rockwall, Texas, is suing a rival dealer who bought the search term "Rockwall Dodge" -- and, as a result, showed up along with the real Rockwall Dodge in a Google search.
Defendant Randall Noe, who owns Randall Noe Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in nearby Terrell, Texas, disputes the allegations, calling the nation's fourth-largest retailer a "crybaby" that's throwing its weight around. He says he no longer uses the Rockwall Dodge search term.
The lawsuit, filed May 21 in state court in Kaufman, Texas, alleges that Noe Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep infringed on Group 1's trademarks and is deceiving customers by using the name of Rockwall Dodge in Google paid-search ads.
By purchasing Google ad words and phrases that contained the Rockwall Dodge proper name, a Randall Noe store link would appear in the upper, shaded portion of the first Google results page where paid ads appear. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the Randall Noe ads included the Rockwall Dodge name in its header.
A Group 1 executive calls the practice predatory.
"It has been an issue in the industry over the last couple of years," said Pete DeLongchamps, Group 1 vice president of manufacturer relations and public affairs. "It's trying to mislead the consumer to direct him toward Web sites and Web addresses that were not the intention of the consumer."