Brandon Harris, Digital Strategist
Kerry McGovern, Digital Coordinator
Jim Nichols, Vice President – Digital
Stern + Associates
Public Relations – Marketing – Digital
11 Commerce Drive, Cranford, New Jersey 07016
The internet has revolutionized the way we discover, evaluate and retain loyalty with companies and
Once a utopia for reaching a mass audience, it quickly turned into a nightmare for marketing, reputation
management and legal departments. The anonymous nature of the internet allows scammers, defamers
and competitors to devalue the reputation of an established brand overnight. Not only do today’s
organizations have to innovate against their competition at an unprecedented pace, they must also fight
to protect their brands.
With obscure legal precedents on the ability to restrict individual internet users from doing or saying
what they want online, today’s brands are forced to actively protect, monitor and defend their
This white paper identifies the internet’s most popular and emerging forms of online identity offenses,
provides suggestions for how to react, and highlights methods to prevent online brand jacking.
ONLINE REPUTATION MANAGEMENT
One of the latest high-profile examples of poor online reputation management is former Pennsylvania
Senator Rick Santorum’s “Google Bomb.” When Santorum recently announced his bid for the Republican
presidential nomination, information-seekers entering his name into Google were presented with a
vulgar site as the top search ranking. Although this search result is off-topic (albeit, purposeful), first
impressions can be difficult to change. It also makes the user search harder for real information about
the candidate. 90% of Google users click the first few search results; this “Google Bomb” is preventing
people from finding, learning and interacting with the candidate. Similar situations occurred with
George W. Bush and filmmaker Michael Moore. While Google has gone to great lengths to prevent this
from happening, resourceful internet brand hijackers are constantly innovating ways to modify search
results for their purposes.
While search results cannot be removed, they can be diluted with positive information. In fact, Google
even suggests in its Official Google Blog: “If you can get stuff that you want people to see to outperform
the stuff you don’t want them to see, you’ll be able to reduce the amount of harm that negative or
embarrassing content can do to your reputation.”
Santorum’s campaign started in June 2011, but his SEO campaign should have begun years before to
offset sites such as Spreading Santorum, set up after columnist Dan Savage felt offended by Santorum’s
religious remarks. SEO campaigns typically take 6 to 18 months to have a noticeable impact on Google’s
Time is also a factor in the Google search algorithm; the longer a site sits at the top rank, the more
difficult it is to overthrow. Savage’s site now sits as the second ranking result, due to press concerning
the “Google Bomb” and Santorum’s presidential campaign. Santorum’s website holds the fifth spot.
Because of this ranking, more people are most likely reading Savage’s Santorum page as opposed to
seeing the official Santorum site. This has had a significant impact on the candidate’s campaign online.
Managing Comments and Feedback
companies of all
shapes and sizes
feedback. What allows
a company to stand
out is the manner in
which they respond.
Both companies and
individuals must tread
carefully in handling
sincere remarks can
make a company look
replying to tirades can
lead to a never-ending,
On many websites, the ability to remove negative reviews can be limited – it’s up to a business to react
with genuine concern over customer experience. The old adage works here: the customer is always right
(even if he/she is not).
Social Networking Spoofing
Scammers and defamers notoriously move at the same pace of web technologies: Deceitful web
addresses, email phishing, search engine ranking manipulation, and the latest trend – social network
spoofing – all follow the progression of the internet’s evolution. Even the savviest of scammers latch
onto social networking profile names aiming to misrepresent brands or drive traffic to their own
When Twitter launched its network in
early 2006, it was not entirely
apparent just how important the
service would become. Many brands
scoffed at the new idea, immediately
discrediting its future ability to connect
with customers. Failing to realize
Twitter’s potential, large companies
missed out on securing identifiable
profile names, leaving them available
to the general public.
Spoofers, often with humorous intent, have secured believable handles to poke fun at brands. For
example, within hours of BP’s 2010 oil spill, numerous Twitter accounts sprang up claiming to be official
sources of BP information; however, none quite gained a following like the falsely associated Twitter
The account garnered trust from its new audience by posting status updates – void of defamation or
humor. In a few short days, the unofficial account amassed more than 38,000 followers (presently
150,000+) but its messaging quickly changed as status updates began to mock the oil spill and BP’s
Unfortunately, companies finding themselves in similar situations do not have many options. While
users can report offenders, it is at the social network’s discretion to either suspend or terminate
So what can a company do to avoid or ease false association and social networking spoofing? The
phrase, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” is an option. Offended organizations should always aim to
understand options surrounding the termination of offensive accounts – but this is not always the right
move. In BP’s case, many public relations professionals believe the company took the right course of
action by not publicly disassociating itself from the unofficial account. Staging a public outcry can
actually be more damaging to a brand as the general public appreciates slight humility.
After the Social Media director at the American Red Cross accidentally sent a personal
tweet on the corporate account, the organization apologized with humor. This showed
followers a bit of humanity and the event increased followers to the account.
Unlike creating websites that could be associated with a company or brand, acquiring social networking
accounts is a simple task for scammers. For one, scammers can easily secure profile names on services
like Twitter and Facebook with minimal effort. In addition, coding and website design are not required
to get up and running.
In the early days of the commercial internet, securing easily identifiable domain names was simple.
Common words and variations of company names were at the general public’s disposal. From this, an
industry of domain squatters – those looking to capitalize on another brand’s success – was born. This
eventually began the “black hat” (“black hat” is a phrase meaning “unethical“ in internet marketing
circles, “white hat” refers to ethical internet marketing methods) practice of securing easily
misrepresented domain names in efforts to (A) sell the domain name to right trademark owners at
higher than average costs or (B) use the domain to sell similar or counterfeit products.
Popular forms of domain squatting include phonetic and keystroke misspellings. As an example, a
phonetic mispronunciation of Google could be Googul. Squatters are masters at identifying common
keystroke mistakes as well. For instance, Toys.com is most often mistyped as Roys.com.
In some cases, domain squatters acquire correctly spelled company names under unsecured top level
domains (TLD). For example, in the domain name shoes.com, the TLD is .com.
In early 2011, internet giant Groupon faced this problem when an Australian company secured the
www.groupon.com.au domain name (.com.au is Australia’s official commerce TLD). Not only did the
purchasers of this domain demand a buyout in excess of $286,000, but they forwarded the domain to
Scoopon – a competing service. This lack of foresight on Groupon’s behalf slowed brand expansion,
impacted revenue and forced legal action.
Scoopon secured the domain www.groupon.com.au, driving traffic to their competitive service.
Fortunately, the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, enacted in 1999, defines parameters to
rightfully seize or take control of domains intended to misrepresent established brands. However, in
some cases, taking action against infringers can result in higher legal fees versus domain name buyouts.
Luckily for Groupon, when its offer of $286,000 was rejected, pursuing legal action proved less costly.
After months of legal debate, Groupon eventually secured the Australian TLD.
Unlike most instances of online brand jacking, domain squatting is somewhat avoidable with proper
foresight. Domain registrars like GoDaddy, offer 70+ TLDs at the time of purchase. While it is not always
worth the cost to secure all domains, it is a best practice to secure the most identifiable. If a company
holds a future stake in expanding beyond its country of origin, securing country-specific TLDs is also
Search Engine Marketing Abuse
The business of search engine marketing (SEM) accounts for more than 97% of Google’s revenue;
however, the practice of buying advertisements using competitive keywords can result in loss of
business for established brands.
Competing websites or scammers actively purchase online advertisements through platforms like
Google’s primary profit machine, AdWords. From there, the offenders aim to appear on the first page of
search engine results using other branding keywords and messaging – luring away potential customers.
Like many luxury brands, the handbag and accessory company, Hermès, has seen its fair share of URL
manipulation, counterfeit websites and SEM abuse. Competitors and scammers often employ SEM
abuse tactics with intentions of stealing potential sales from official websites. While the loss of services
sold or product revenue is incalculable, the funds spent to compete with scamming competitors in pay-
per-click advertisements can add up quickly.
A website seeking to sell knockoff merchandise is in direct competition with luxury handbag maker Hermès.
Although the majority of online ad distributors employ algorithms to limit SEM scamming, the best
defense against this practice is to connect with ad distributors directly. The largest of all distributors,
Google, does not manually remove advertisements without receiving complaints or claims of copyright
infringement. Even then, the properly trademarked organization must prove rightful ownership.
The art of offering very convincing counterfeit goods made its transition to the internet in the early
nineties. Since then, it has turned into a billion dollar business encompassing clothing, media and
Counterfeit goods bought over the internet fail to indicate deception until orders never arrive, customer
service doesn’t exist and/or a lower quality product arrives. Although the desired brands hold no
affiliation with the bogus goods supplier, the average customer immediately associates the two.
Counterfeit website, www.thierryhermes.com, declares itself as the official website of Luxury handbag maker Hermès. The
site, which appears to be very professional, includes legitimate high-resolution product images, payment processing options
and customer service information.
Over the past decade, talented scammers have progressed into producing nearly identical websites - in
some cases even better looking than the original. These websites are fully capable of displaying product
images, pricing (typically better deals) and payment processing options.
Aside from taking legal action against counterfeit public entities, brands should do consumers the
service of identifying known counterfeit sites somewhere highly visible on the official homepage.
All text living within a website, seen or unseen, affects search engine results. Competitors and scammers
can easily inject brand messaging and copy into their own websites – ultimately laying the foundation to
rank higher than official outlets. While this practice is not illegal, many deem it as a “Black Hat” SEO
Due to the nature and openness of the internet, meta manipulation cannot be forcibly stopped. Brands
must consistently employ SEM best practices. By optimizing meta descriptions, keywords and page copy,
brands will improve their website rankings and defend their territory.
The next wave of domains is coming in the form of TLD. Companies will soon be able to create
their own TLD by walking away from the .com world and entering the .brand world. For example, Apple
will one day host information on the .apple extension as opposed to apple.com. While expensive at
$185,000, this undeniably provides brands a level of protection, possibly saving many millions of dollars
each year lost to counterfeiting and cybersquatting.
As noted by Stern + Associates’ Vice President of Digital, Jim Nichols, in a recent Forbes.com article,
securing a unique TLD “gives companies a chance to control a bit more of their online identity, albeit at a
price. The risk of an unscrupulous person trying to hijack your company’s identity will have a tougher
time when official pages end with a .brand extension.”
Maintaining online brand protection includes both a proactive and defensive approach. Using
automated services, such as Google Alerts, will notify responsible parties whenever the brand is
mentioned. It is nearly impossible, without automation, to detect brand offenses online. Defensive
tactics, such as purchasing similar-sounding domains and having a well-communicated corporate
identity theft strategy in place, can keep you on top of internet troublemakers.
Consider securing a personal TLD. If spending $185,000 is worth creating total brand security,
securing a TLD should be greatly considered. Owning the domain extension of a company’s most
recognizable name will eventually aid disassociating official sources of products or information from
Stay on top of expiring domains. Most top-tier internet domain registrars allow the buyer to secure
more than 60 TLDs at the time of purchase. This is a company’s first opportunity to begin online
branding protection practices. Some domain registrars will even suggest similar domains to further
protect branding. Many internet fraudsters begin by simply buying domain names corporations have
accidentally let expire. Getting those domains back can be expensive and time consuming.
Appoint an individual or team to monitor automated alerts, mentions of the brand in social
media conversation and websites incorporating brand messaging within competing copy or meta tags.
Securing a .COM is not enough. Got the next billion dollar idea or website? It is inevitable that after
your company’s first news release is distributed, savvy brand jackers will latch onto all available domains
featuring your brand’s name such as the .net, .org, .us, etc. versions of your brand.
Have legal counsel briefed on the Anticybersqautting Act well ahead of impending offenses. If
the offense becomes too damaging to resolve without counsel, your legal team must be ready to react
Cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Understand that many brand jacking offenses can be pre-empted with
preparation and caution. While it is nearly impossible to secure every domain related to a particular
brand, try to secure domains that may be perceived as official.
Do not immediately delete or request to remove negative feedback. View these responses as a
chance to learn how customers feel about their experience with your products or services. The
impending backlash spurred by removing customer opinions can be far worse. A compassionate public
reply to negative comments shows true concern and acknowledgement of wrong doing.
About Stern + Associates
Stern + Associates is a full-service public relations, marketing and digital communications agency with
offices in Cranford, N.J., Cambridge, Mass. and Pittsburgh, Pa. The company’s Connected
CommunicationsSM approach fuses the best of traditional media, digital, marketing and direct
engagement strategies to generate measurable payoffs for its growing roster of national and
international clients. In an industry known for high client turnover, Stern cuts through the complexities
of the fast-changing media landscape with smart strategies and bright ideas that have resulted in strong
client partnerships, many lasting for more than a decade. For additional information, visit
www.sternassociates.com or call our office at (908) 276-4344.