Could your business be facing a lawsuit over Internet search results?

Any business would jump at the chance to dictate the order of organic Internet search results that include its name. But that’s not so easy.

Still, a judge in Florida recently told a well-known, international company that it must find a way to do exactly that. And in the vast world of the web, it’s a cautionary tale for businesses of all sizes.

The case involves a Gainesville, Fla., company, Uber Promotions, which has a regional trademark that supersedes the more well-known ride-sharing service’s trademark.

The smaller company is an ad agency that does event planning and offers transportation services, among other things. But searching the web for “Uber Gainesville” turns up the bigger company first.

When the Florida company sued the bigger Uber Technologies for trademark infringement, the court said that this search conundrum led to “consumer confusion.” That’s especially due to the larger company’s UberEVENTs division.

The court issued a tall order. It said that Uber must be sure that its listing doesn’t rise above Uber Promotions. Specifically, it said that Uber must ensure that a search with the keywords “Uber Gainesville phone” or “Uber Gainesville phone number” returns a result that includes its own local phone number and words that show it’s the ride service. And, the judge said, Uber has to make sure that this search result doesn’t replace the current result for Uber Promotions with Uber Technologies’ phone number. Plus, the flipside must also be true. A search using the keywords “Uber promotions Gainesville phone” or “Uber promotions Gainesville phone number” may not yield the bigger company’s phone number.

The end goal is to avoid consumers looking for the smaller company finding the bigger Uber instead, but still allow the latter to continue operating in the area.

But that leaves Uber in a bit of an online pickle. How can Uber — or any company for that matter — possibly control organic search results on the web?

One way for businesses to exercise some amount of control over their search engine ranking is through search-term advertising by paying a search engine to be associated with certain keywords, such as Google AdWords. The judge in the Florida case said that Uber might have to realign its pay-per-click advertising to achieve the desired result.

The problem is that even with a big spend in AdWords there is little to no way to curtail the confusion that might arise from organic search. The process that yields organic search engine results is quite complex, involving hundreds of elements in a multi-faceted algorithm, such as keywords on the website, how new the content is, the region the company is based in, and more.

What’s more is that currently, search engines allow companies to purchase AdWords for their competitors’ trademarks and they don’t bar choosing trademarks as keywords even if a trademark complaint arises. But a ruling like the one in Florida might be a sign of tighter rules in the future.

If your business plans a move into another region, take care to seek out any companies with similar names in advance. And to avoid these challenges in the first place, if you launch a new business do your due diligence to avoid selecting a name with similarities to other regional businesses.

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