This year's Super Bowl broke a record for online streaming. More people than ever chose to watch the game online, with an average of 528,000 devices tuning into Fox's online broadcast each minute.
Similarly, the demand for a live stream of the Super Bowl seemed to skyrocket this year. The volume of streaming-related searches increased about five-fold on Google. Check out this Google Trends graph for the keyword "super bowl stream". There's a huge spike in February 2014—overshadowing everything from previous years.
So what were all these searchers finding on their SERPs? In the time leading up to Super Bowl 48, we monitored a variety of keywords related to watching the game online. Among the results, we found a number of ads promoting illegal streams of the game. Here's a screenshot from one of our tests that includes three questionable ads right at the top.
These domain names should immediately raise some red flags. Forced keywords and a plethora of hyphens are not exactly the makings of a trustworthy site. It's also worth noting that the third ad's copy uses a zero instead of an "o" in "Super Bowl". That's a common tactic that malicious advertisers use to avoid getting flagged for trademark abuse.
As I moved to these ads' landing pages, I found even more cause for concern. Here's the destination of the first ad from the SERP:
Why would I have to download a toolbar to watch the video stream? Is a toolbar even capable of that? My guess is that the toolbar has no live stream functionality at all. The site is probably just making whatever case it can to get the toolbar downloaded. If a visitor is desperate or in a rush, this might be enough to motivate an install. And if the site is getting paid for each of those installs, that's all it needs to care about.
By conducting a quick search for the the "BringMeSports toolbar", you'll find that the majority of people are looking for a way to uninstall it. This indicates that its promotional tactics are misleading or downright deceptive. Most users were probably duped into downloading it in the first place. Of course, some of that may be due to aggressive software bundling or another practice. But based on what we see here, I imagine that paid search abuse is at least a partial culprit.
Will This Only Get Worse?
As streaming becomes more and more popular, we expect this abuse to grow. More searches mean more opportunities for malicious advertisers to grab traffic. Furthermore, the search engines can't be expected to police this. There are plenty of legitimate ways for a third-party advertiser to use "Super Bowl" in their ad copy (for example, sellers of Super Bowl merchandise or an informational site on the history of the Super Bowl).
Fortunately, there are definitely ways to combat such abuse. The ads we saw were in clear violation of the search engines' trademark policies—and most likely their editorial policies as well. By proactively monitoring for these types of terms, a brand owner would be able to report these violations and get the offending ads taken down. As fans of the Super Bowl, we hope the NFL takes steps to combat this abuse next year!