Despite protests to the contrary, the move by Carnival Corp.'s brands in North America to bar travel-agency partners starting Jan. 1, 2010, from participating in keyword bidding on the lines' trademarks likely comes down to an economic decision.
You know, in these things, you have to follow the money.
It likely has become so expensive for Carnival to bid on keywords in the Google, Bing and Yahoo search engines and then to consummate a booking that it is tempting for the cruise company to try to swat away the bids of those online travel agencies and other cruise sellers that it can pressure to bow out of the process.
Carnival's decision has created an uproar in the ranks of some major online cruise sellers, and came as it also decided to implement a controversial policy on social media.
Some would argue that it is awkward indeed for cruise lines -- or any companies, for that matter -- to be out-bid on its own brands and trademarks, and assuredly the search engines should afford the trademark-holders some influence and protections.
But, in the relatively free market of keyword bidding, isn't there something wrong with companies being able to just swat away the competition by fiat? Isn't there an anticompetitive practice issue at work here?
When I plunked the search term Carnival Miracle into Google a moment ago, the top sponsored listing was from America's Vacation Center.
Beginning Jan. 1, unless it gets permission, America's Vacation Center would be missing in action from the paid-for listings or risk losing the right to book Carnival cruises.
Should cruise lines and other travel sellers thus have the right to drive direct bookings and lower their paid-search bids by eliminating the competition?
American Airlines apparently has had some luck in protecting its trademarks in search engines, although it has taken a different tack than Carnival. American sued Google over the issue of the search engine's allowing other companies to bid on the airline's trademarks and and the two parties reportedly reached a settlement, with the terms undisclosed.
But, upon a bit of investigation, I have an idea how the tussle ended up. Just contrast a search for American Airlines on Google versus a search for Delta Air Lines.
The following, a link to AA.com, was the lone sponsored result I got from an American Airlines search on Google a moment ago.
In contrast, a Google search for Delta Air Lines turned up sponsored listings from Delta Air Lines, SmartFares.com and Expedia.com, like this:
The pattern holds true with other American Airlines searches I did on Google.
Apparently American Airlines has not yet articulated its trademark message to Bing in a similarly strong manner. Here's what a search for American Airlines comes up with on Bing in terms of sponsored results:
In addition to a paid result from American Airlines, there were sponsored site entries from TripMama.com, EscapeWizard.com, Travelation.com and SearchAirlinePrices.com.
So here's the question: Is it equitable that American Airlines must bid for its own trademarks against the likes of SearchAirlinePrices.com -- or against a competitor airline?
Or would it be fair for American Airlines or Princess Cruises or any travel company XYZ to exert its influence to bar partners from competing in keyword bidding, and thus artificially lower its paid-search costs?
Depending on the answer, there is a whole lot of money hanging in the balance.