This Sunday marks the season finale of HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones” TV series, which actually set a record for piracy earlier this year. The data from that record-setting season opener was rather impressive: over a million downloads within 24 hours and more than 163,000 users simultaneously sharing a single torrent.
As the information spread, it soon came to the attention of HBO. And although their initial response wasn’t so decisive, it now seems that they’re taking action to prevent such piracy (for all their programming—not just Game of Thrones). If you search for Game of Thrones related torrents on Google, you’ll see a good number of DMCA takedowns among the organic listings. Each takedown includes a message from Google with this basic verbiage:
In response to a complaint we received under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read the DMCA complaint that caused the removal(s) at ChillingEffects.org.
From this sample DMCA complaint, we can see that HBO is working with the third-party service IP Echelon to report copyright violations for 23 of its shows. And this effort should get them some traction—organic listings are a very common way for users to find their illegal downloads (the search term “game of thrones torrent” receives about 550,000 searches per month on Google).
Getting these organic pages taken down will certainly provide some relief. But what’s happening on the other side of search? How does the Game of Thrones brand fare in paid listings?
An Alternative Form of Brand Abuse
Here’s the good news: torrent sites don’t seem to be going after the Game of Thrones brand in paid search. That would have been especially concerning, so we’re glad that we haven’t found any evidence of it. However, that also leads us to the bad news. We did find a significant group of advertisers promoting episode streams and other alternative ways to watch the show. In particular, these advertisers are targeting the Game of Thrones brand in ad copy and through their selection of keywords. For example, take this ad placed on AOL:
Once you land on the advertiser’s site, gameofthronesseason4.com (which by itself is sort of begging for a lawsuit), you’ll find some formulaic narrative content, display ads, and a section with links to streaming episodes. The episodes section (which you can also navigate to through the “Full Episodes” sitelink from the ad) links to streams at the websites Movie4k.to and Movie2k.to.
If you try clicking on the links for seasons 1 and 2, you’ll actually land on an error page. The reason? Well, each of those links goes to Movie2k.to, which apparently was shut down back in May (possibly due to the MPAA’s complaint about piracy). Conversely, all of the season 3 links go to Movie4k.to and seem to work.
Ultimately, whether those links are working or not, this site is only serving to divert traffic from HBO’s own site—where a visitor might buy episodes on DVD, find merchandise, or sign up for HBO GO. Furthermore, by presenting these free viewing options, this site undermines the paid options that actually make money for HBO. And this site accomplishes all this by taking advantage of the Game of Thrones brand name in its domain name and its ads. (Interestingly, though, the advertiser seems to also be monetizing the site through affiliate links to Game of Thrones figurines on Amazon).
Toolbar Promoters Seize the Opportunity
Unfortunately, being a popular search also makes you a target for anyone looking to snag some traffic. And this case is no exception. We’ve seen many toolbars piggybacking off the show’s popularity—with the majority of them making some sort of misleading claim about how users can watch episodes for free through their software.
Here’s an example that showed up on Ask:
While the ad does indicate that the user will be downloading something, it’s rather deceptive about what that something actually is. In this case, it gives the impression that the download will enable the user to watch full episodes of Game of Thrones—seemingly for free. Furthermore, the designation of “app” makes it seem like more of a full service program such as Netflix or Hulu—not a toolbar.
The landing page is somewhat apologetic about the “app” claim, replacing the term with “extension.” However, the rest of the page follows suit with the tone of the ad:
But if you end up downloading the toolbar, your computer won’t exactly turn itself into a TV. In fact, you’ll have no free option for watching Game of Thrones at all. You’ll merely find a portal with a set of links to watch it via HBO GO or Xfinity. And those will only work if you’re already an HBO subscriber through your cable plan.
Beyond that, you may find the occasional link to watch a different show on Hulu or elsewhere. But that’s about it, with the exception of your default search engine being reset to “MyWebSearch” (as you can see on the download page above).
Unfortunately, Popular Trademarks Are Often Targets for Abuse
Of course, this basic practice isn’t anything new. Blackhat advertisers will often try to leverage such combinations of search popularity and brand trust in order to dupe users into taking some undesired action. The specifics may be unique, but we’ve seen similar brand bidding tactics before. Many of the offenders in this case were familiar to us, due to the scale of paid search monitoring that we conduct.
We find that the most actionable step for brands to take here is to issue complaint letters to the search engines. That way, these trademark infringing ads can be taken down, preventing traffic from being diverted and users from being deceived. If you’re curious about how to manage the process, we’d be happy to discuss it in further detail.