Earlier this week, Mozilla launched the latest version of Firefox. The news got plenty of people (including me) excited about the updated look, feel and features of version 29.
After noticing a few Tweets pop up and hearing some discussion from co-workers, I decided to check up on what all the commotion was about. I figured that a trusty Google search would do the trick, so I simply typed in "Firefox" in hopes of a quick answer. To my surprise, this is what I found:
Bizarre. The first results I saw, right at the top of the page, were ads placed by third-party download sites. Not just one, but a pair of ads promoting Firefox downloads at the top of Google's results. The ads were also pretty bold in their approach. Between them, we see a number of interesting tactics:
- Using the registered trademark symbol (®) in ad copy
- Describing the promoted version as "Official" in ad copy
- Using pushy language that doesn't seem consistent with the Mozilla brand
What Was Going on Here?
Why was this happening? Was this just a one-off incident that I happened to stumble across—or was it part of a bigger trend? Curious about these questions, I looked back to some monitoring that I had set up a while back. This particular set of monitoring covered a number of software brands, including Firefox. So, I started combing through the results. Here's what else I started to find:
This Definitely Wasn't an Isolated Incident
After looking back through some BrandVerity data from a test account that I set up a while back, I found numerous examples of both these advertisers placing ads on Google for Firefox-related keywords. The first advertiser, browser-download.com, has actually been showing ads since February 11th at the latest. The second advertiser, free-downloads.us.com, has been showing ads since April 13th at the latest. In fact, I had actually limited my monitoring to a narrow set of keywords. So it's likely that both advertisers started placing similar ads even earlier.
Of course, it probably comes as no surprise that this wasn't a random find. After all, one manual search on a popular branded keyword showed two prominent ads from software download sites. That's not something we're likely to come across by pure accident. Why would the advertiser spend time creating an ad that would only run once? They wouldn't. It wouldn't be worth the effort.
But Was This Intentional?
Alternatively, there's the possibility that the advertisers didn't intend to advertise on the keyword. Through some sort of targeting accident, they could appear sporadically. An accident like that would probably require a few things: low relevance, low quality score, and a campaign with some very broad matching. So, does that explain these ads? I looked at a couple more ads from the first advertiser to test.
Here we have a couple variations of browser-download.com's ad. Their campaign is rotating between these ads on Firefox's branded keywords. That would seem to suggest that the site is specifically targeting Firefox. If you're still skeptical, I suggest revisiting the original ad we found at the top of the post. That ad makes sure to include both the Firefox trademark and the registered trademark symbol—a difficult feat if you're broad matching and using Dynamic Keyword Insertion. For even more confirmation, I also looked at the landing page associated with these ads. The landing page was very specific to Firefox. There were also no intermediary redirects or signs of the ValueTrack keyword parameter, meaning that the landing page was essentially hard-coded. browser-download.com must have specifically placed this Firefox-specific URL into AdWords.
Plenty More Advertisers Were Doing the Same Thing
So far, we've only talked about two advertisers in this post. But were they the only ones involved? I looked through more of the data to see what else was there. Pretty quickly, I found several more advertisers showing up in prominent positions. Here are three different software download sites that each appeared in the #1 position on Google in the past month:
And that was just beginning. Even on the limited set of keywords I was monitoring for Firefox, I found nearly 20 advertisers offering similar downloads. Each of these sites seemed to follow a similar pattern.
What's in It for These Download Sites?
Okay, so we know that advertisers are doing quite a bit of this. But why? What incentive do they have? I have plenty of appreciation for Firefox, as do many other people. But I doubt that these sites are promoting it simply for the good of the world.
To get a better understanding of what was going on, I decided to look into the landing pages on these sites. One of the more interesting ones came up in the free-downloads.us.com ad from our initial example:
Notice the language in the disclaimer at the bottom:
Free downloads via Download Manager. Additional commercial offers might be offered durring (sic) the download process. The product may be available for download for free from the manufacturer's website.
This isn't your standard Firefox download. It's been bundled with some additional software—most likely some sort of toolbar. Potentially even adware or malware. This is a somewhat common monetization strategy for brand bidders, and something we've covered before with advertisers targeting Pinterest. The download site gets paid on a per-install basis for the additional software that it promotes through its install wizard.
Let's quickly look at another example. Here's a similar disclaimer from browser-download.com's landing page (you can click the image for a full-size version):
This disclaimer uses slightly different wording. However, I suspect that "ad-supported software manager" means something very similar to the "additional commercial offers" we saw on free-downloads.us.com. Either way, the language in each of these disclaimers explains that there's a clear financial relationship between the download sites and certain partners. They are ultimately getting paid by bundling Firefox's software with other products.
Does Firefox Allow this?
So, at this point we know that A) download sites are using the Firefox trademark to promote Firefox downloads, and B) the download sites are bundling Firefox's software with other products by using their own installers. Is this something that Firefox allows? Or is this a form of trademark abuse?
To answer those questions, I looked into Mozilla's Desktop Distribution policy and its Trademark Policy. Fortunately, they both were relatively specific. Here's the most relevant passage from the distribution policy. I've added some bold to a few sections so it's a little easier to scan.
Distribution of unmodified copies of our product installers, disk images, and/or tarballs downloaded from mozilla.org is permitted under the terms of our distribution policy, and does not require an agreement.
The branded versions of Firefox and Thunderbird are governed by the Mozilla Foundation's Trademark Policy. Our code is free, but our trademark rights are strictly enforced. While there is considerable freedom to redistribute and modify our software and source code that does not incorporate our branding, there are restrictions on your ability to use Mozilla's trademarks and logos.
What this means is that distributing any modified versions of the branded software we release requires our permission and, in most cases, a distribution agreement between your organization and Mozilla. This policy applies to any component of the branded software, including - but not limited to - the installer file/disk image/tarball, the executable binaries, chrome files, preferences files, or any other file/component of a Mozilla-branded application. We do this to ensure our users have a great experience with any version of Firefox through a faster, safer and better browser.
Firefox's distribution policy depends on whether their product has been modified. If you're simply providing the standard installation, you're allowed to distribute pretty freely. But if you've modified the product, you need their permission. That applies to various aspects of the product—including the installer.
So, these download sites need Firefox's permission. They can't distribute modified versions of Firefox without it. This permission is also related to the trademark policy. Here's a brief passage from the trademark policy that expands on this permission (with my bolding added).
Again, any modification to the Mozilla product, including adding to, modifying in any way, or deleting content from the files included with an installer, file location changes, added code, modification of any source files including additions and deletions, etc., will require our permission if you want to use the Mozilla Marks. If you have any doubt, just ask us at email@example.com.
The download sites need Mozilla's permission. They can't use the Firefox trademark without it.
Alright, now we know that these download sites need permission from Mozilla to use the Firefox trademark. Do they actually have that permission? We can't know for sure—but we can make some educated guesses.
In their trademark policy, Mozilla goes on to explain more of their rationale behind their requirements. I won't go into these in detail, but the bottom line is that they want to ensure that the Firefox brand is associated with a compelling web experience. They mention that they want to avoid deception, confusion and anything that might harm the identity of Mozilla's brands. They're also specific that distributors should provide the most recent release of Firefox.
At this point, the question is: do these software bundlers meet that standard? Our examples so far would seem to suggest "No", but let's look just a little further.
Plagiarism of Firefox's Content
If you scroll down the page on free-downloads.us.com, you'll see this supporting copy. It has a tagline, subheads, and some well-written body text. Seems great, right? That's because it's entirely lifted from Mozilla's own Firefox content. A Google search of one paragraph reveals that the text originally appeared on Firefox.com. What's worse, it's from an old indexing of the Firefox site. That content isn't actually current!
Promoting Outdated Versions of Firefox
This is probably worse than outdated content. Despite the fact that Mozilla just released version 29 of Firefox, this download site is promoting version 27. That's two versions behind! This might have been understandable if it were only a single version behind, considering that Firefox just launched version 29. But to be this outdated and call is "New" doesn't seem appropriate for the Firefox brand. Especially at the top of Google.
Of course, we've simply looked at a single brand and a limited set of examples here. There's plenty more to this issue that we'd love to explore. Here are some initial questions that this brings up for me:
- What software products are these download sites promoting with their installers?
- Do their installers include any malware or adware?
- Is there always a real Firefox binary included in the download?
- What other brands are these download sites be targeting?
I'd also love to hear any feedback or questions from you. If you have any experience seeing this in the wild, don't hesitate to comment or reach out to us!