As we've learned from a number of investigations in the past, popular branded searches can often become the target of search arbitrage or other brand bidding schemes. Advertisers choose to poach these terms because they're searched frequently, relatively cheap to bid on, and associated with a trusted brand (thereby easing users' skepticism and luring them in).
Recently, we found some of this activity on Google Mobile, specifically surrounding various app-related keywords. The tactic wasn't nearly as malicious as examples we've seen in the past, but it was still similar at its core—attempting to divert traffic away from a popular brand. In this case, the Korean-owned messaging app LINE was trying to snag extra traffic from branded searches for other apps (and presumably use that diverted traffic to increase downloads of its own app). Here's an example:
The #2 ad here actually goes to the LINE app download page. And although Evernote's official app appears in the organic results below these ads, the fact that "evernote" first stands out in bold for a completely irrelevant app is troubling. What's more, the mobile setting probably makes the user more likely to click on this ad because of two factors: 1) decreased screen real estate, and 2) the increased difficulty of distinguishing ads from organic results on phone screens.
At the very least, this is a poor user experience. More likely, the diverted traffic is also reducing some of Evernote's installs. The numbers may not be staggering since a pretty simple click on the back button will return the user to the expected organic listing. But nonetheless, the increases in friction and confusion are likely to cause a portion of searchers to bounce.
An Even Stranger Example
Spotify is an even more popularly searched app. And here, it gets buried by two separate ads for LINE app. The first, strangely enough, is a more official ad for LINE, complete with the app's icon and some Javanese ad copy (according to Google Translate). The second ad follows suit with the Evernote example above, probably using Dynamic Keyword Insertion to place the requested app's name in the headline of the ad. The reasons for this ad copy isn't entirely clear, but the presence of these two ads suggests more of a specific intent to target this keyword and divert traffic to LINE.
LINE Even Targets Google Products
Here's a LINE ad that appeared on a search for "Google Docs." It's a tough one to explain. As are the many others that we found targeting various Google products including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Offers, and more. Why would LINE take the risk of having Google find about this? After all, Google is the gatekeeper for all the ads that LINE is running. Perhaps LINE thought that Google wouldn't notice, maybe it simply placed these ads by accident, or there's even the unlikely possibility that some third party attempted this as a sort of prank.
If LINE was indeed engaging in this intentionally (which seems probable), it's unclear why it chose to do so. According to this piece in Digital Trends, LINE USA's CEO Jeanie Han mentioned that as of early 2013 LINE had been growing organically in the US "by just word of mouth" and that there would be more focused marketing efforts for LINE in the future, including celebrity endorsements. That doesn't sound like a marketing plan that needs cheap, diverted traffic, in order to grow.
Perhaps the two most relevant points for brands are that 1) A single advertiser can take up multiple ad slots when the destination URL is an Android app, and that 2) even keywords that a brand might not choose to bid on can be targets for trademark poachers (particularly in PPC areas where they have less direct visibility).
Our Spotify example shows the dangers of #1 in particular, with two separate ads that each link to LINE app instead of Spotify—both appearing above Spotify on the SERP. With no ability to enforce a "one domain per SERP" policy when it comes to apps, this may become increasingly significant for brands who have apps, particularly if Google decides to introduce more ads to the top of the Google Mobile SERP.