Feuds like the one between Group 1 Automotive Inc. and Randall Noe Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep of Terrell, Texas, need to become a thing of the past.
Group 1 is suing the Noe dealership, alleging that its rival used the trademarked name of a Group 1 store, Rockwall Dodge, in paid-search ads bought from Google. Dealer principal Randall Noe said he doesn't think he did anything illegal.
Google is such an important battleground for dealerships seeking new customers that without better guidelines -- rules, regulations or trademark infringement case law -- there could be a slew of similar disputes.
The search-engine company says it has published and contractual prohibitions against trademark infringement and admonishes that "advertisers are responsible for the keywords they choose to generate advertisements and the text that they choose to use in those advertisements."
Google makes money each time an ad is clicked and admits selling specific search terms to more than one bidder, yet says it takes allegations of trademark infringement very seriously -- and, as a courtesy, investigates matters raised by trademark owners. But to what end?
Google, which covets more automotive business above and beyond the search engine function, must improve the protection it offers dealerships that pay for search ads.
Like many parts of the Internet, the system of bidding for ad words and search engine dominance on Google seems to rely primarily on voluntary compliance with few rules.
States have laws prohibiting deceptive advertising and trademark infringement, but search-term advertising often falls into a gray area.
The trademark issue on search engines is not a new problem. But the stakes are getting higher. On average, two of every three visitors to a dealership Web site get there directly from a Google search, which means dealers are more sensitive about protecting their trade names on search engines.
In some markets there apparently are unwritten gentlemen's agreements among dealers that preclude poaching a competitor's ad words or trademarks. In those markets, most disputes never rise to the level of litigation because they generally can be settled with a phone call.
That may be reasonable and good enough among honorable entrepreneurs, though government agencies could take a dim view of dealer collaboration involving competitive issues such as Internet advertising. It would be regulatory overkill if Internet search-term disputes led to volumes of new legislation and layers of new bureaucracy.
But something more must be done. And it's up to Google to take the lead.