By David Z. Morris
December 30, 2017

A German court has ordered Amazon to stop using so-called “typo targeting” to serve ads to shoppers who enter misspellings of “Birkenstock” on Google. The case was brought by the sandal maker in connection with an ongoing dispute over counterfeit products sold by Amazon, but it could have broader implications for a longstanding and usually benign practice in online advertising.

The preliminary injunction was issued by a district court in Dusseldorf, according to Der Spiegel.

Birkenstock announced in November that it would stop selling its products on Amazon in Europe, because the retailer doesn’t do enough to combat knockoffs. Copycat products of all sorts are a longstanding issue on Amazon, and Birkenstock is just one of several brands that have had conflicts with Amazon because of it.

But fighting typo-based advertising seems at best tangential to the issue of counterfeiting. Using misspelled brand names on fake goods is a common way for counterfeiters to attempt to skirt trademark law, but Amazon’s behavior here is not a parallel form of digital deception. Targeting ads to misspelled search terms is a mainstream practice that can actually help shoppers find what they’re looking for more easily — advertisers essentially pay Google to redirect misspelled terms to the proper spelling. In a particularly notable case, Snickers built an entire Google campaign around the misspelling “Snikkers.”

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And broadly speaking, counterfeit products sold on Amazon don’t use misspellings in their online or physical branding. Instead, they tend to be superficially exact copies, listed as the real thing by bad actors in Amazon’s network of third-party sellers. If Amazon is using misspellings to advertise Birkenstocks to shoppers, and those shoppers wind up receiving knockoffs, the problem is much more likely to be Amazon’s supply-chain structure than its search tactics.

The Birkenstock decision is not final. But a finding suggesting that typo-targeting is a form of deceptive advertising could have substantial ripple effects – and not necessarily to the benefit of German web users.

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