It's not only the McDonalds and Coca-Colas of the business world that have to fight to protect their Internet addresses from cyber criminals who will try to ride on a brand's coattails and pick up business from unsuspecting, potential customers who type in the wrong URL.
Back in 1994, one of the earliest so-called "cybersquatters" was a journalist, former Newsday writer Joshua Quittner, who successfully registered 'mcdonalds.com' in the rules for registering brand names changed. Quittner ended up selling the brand to the fast food giant, and donated the money to charity. But other cybersquatters have looked to simply cash in.
In the years since, however, small and mid-sized businesses have increasingly had to take legal action to protect their business domain names. Earlier this year, GoDaddy.com, a mid-sized Internet firm based in Conroe, Texas, won an arbitration proceeding from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and won the transfer of 10 different domain names -- godaddyebay.com, godaddythis.com, and godaddythat.com among them – registered by Clark Signs, of Mableton, Ga., and Graham Clark of Del Mar, Calif.
A bigger issue for small business
The number of complaints about Internet domain names brought to WIPO, an international body based in Geneva that has become one of the leading dispute resolution centers for Internet names, has been steadily rising – from 1 case in 1999 to more than 1,900 this year so far. Among them are a growing number of small and mid-sized firms that realize someone else may be trying to siphon off their business by registering similar domains in the popular dot-com top-level domain. For business purposes, dot-com has become the gold standard for how to find a business online.
"It's probably more of an issue for small businesses," says John Berryhill, a Media, Pa. attorney who does a brisk business in protecting domain names from cybersquatters for client. If you're an Internet user and you can't find Coca-Cola on the Internet, you know to go to a search engine and try some combination of the soft drink giant's name. "But if you are a smaller, less well-known business and somebody has usurped your business name as a domain name," Berryhill says. "You're not even going to get a toehold on being found."
Large companies are primarily concerned with people chipping away at their good will by registering similar names or slight variations of spelling. But they're not in any serious jeopardy of disappearing from the Internet, Berryhill says. For a smaller business, if some one else has got your domain name, then potential customers may not be able to find your outpost online.
Fighting the cybersquatters
Some cybersquatters -- or their brethren, "brandjackers," who register variations of famous brands – are simply looking to make money off of business they can pull away from more well-known firms or figure that the business ultimately may offer to pay them for the domain name. "From a financial perspective, it is to take money off of Web visitors who were really looking for the famous brand holder," said Ari Master, COO of CitizenHawk, a company specifically focused on identifying and eliminating cybersquatters.
"Cybersquatters register hundreds, if not thousands, of misspelled domains based on every well-known company's trademarks," said Master. "At this level, it is totally impractical and cost prohibitive to shut down these rogue sites through manual methodologies."
The deceptive websites are often used as landing pages for spam offers or in phishing attacks. These cybersquatting website may even try to take a consumer's credit card information with the intention of stealing that person's identity.
Cybersquatting offenses were up 19 percent in the first three quarters of 2007 over the same period in the previous year. That's according to the "BrandJacking Autumn 2007" report released by MarkMonitor. Between the second and third quarters the rate increased by 10 percent alone, rising from 286,801 occurrences in Q1 to 342,512 at the end of Q3.
"Brand abusers take a shotgun approach -- trying to get to as large an audience as possible," said Andrew Horton, director of product management at MarkMonitor. He said very often the larger the brand, the larger the target. Howeve,r "for some industries a popular brand is not a function of company size."
Preventing domain confusion
Any brand can fall prey to cybersquatting and other forms of brandjacking. It's prudent to safeguard your brand in advance of such attacks. "The best defense is to put together a brand protection strategy for your company," said Horton. "The first step is to prevent abuse from occurring by registering domains defensively. If you're doing business overseas, make sure you register your most valuable domains and brands in the countries in which you are doing business.
"You may want to register popular variants like 'acmecustomerserivce.com' or acmeproducts.com," Horton advises. "Use your Web logs and Web analytics to help you identify the most popular terms that your customers are using online to find you and consider registering those terms to protect your traffic from brandjackers."
CitizenHawk's Master suggests going so far as to think like cybersquatters. "I would highly recommend taking a proactive approach to protect against cybersquatters," he said. "This includes purchasing the cloud of sites that surround the branded terms -- the most likely misspellings -- as well as derivations of the branded term -- like 'newbrandsucks.com."
The company has a tool on its website where domain and brand owners can see some of the top misspellings and alternate domains just to get things started. "While there will be no way to get all of them up-front, taking a strategic brand management approach from the beginning will stop a lot of future attacks," says Master.
Call for help in fighting brandjacking
Google and other companies that operate sponsored links networks have rules against trademark abuse and can be helpful. While they can't monitor the sponsored links bided on through their system, they will take down any that infringe on trademarks, once notified.
The use of logos and other copyrighted materials is also a problem. Watermarking images, and having computer programs crawl the Web and detect such violations can go a long way toward protecting your brand.
Another simple measure Horton recommends is to use notification services like Google Alerts to see how your name is being used. This is often referred to as a vanity search, and through most notification services it's free, and effective. Plus sometimes you learn of the good ways people are talking about your brand.