What Customers Enter into an Online Retailer?s Search Box May Pose Legal Problems

Almost every e-commerce website, from sites run by local mom-and-pop retailers to those of massive online sellers, offers some amount of search functionality. Providing customers with an easy way to locate information among all the products an online retailer sells has become a necessity. In fact, having a strong search feature is so expected that customers may perceive a website without a useful search option as being difficult to navigate and overall unfriendly to shoppers.

Fortunately, thanks to Google and other technology visionaries, the evolution of search, particularly in terms of speed and accuracy, makes it an indispensable website feature no matter how a customer searches. For instance, one customer looking for Hawaiian shirts may search by entering just a single word in a search box (e.g., Hawaiian) and then enjoys spend time browsing a large number of results. Another customer may take a more narrow approach by entering multiple terms (e.g., Hawaiian shirt men’s medium coconut) hoping to save browsing time by narrowing the search results compared to using a single word. While a third customer may get even more specific and look for results that match a specific phrase (e.g., “all silk Hawaiian shirts”). In all cases, the results are often what customers would expect to see.

But what happens if what the customer is entering is the name of a product the website does not carry? For example, let’s say they enter the trademarked product name, Brand X Hawaiian Shirt, in the search box. What should the online retailer display for the results of this search? Well, on some websites, especially those with a search feature that is not considered top-of-the-line technology, the results may say something like: No results for your search for Brand X Hawaiian Shirt.  However, more sophisticated search tools may return links to products it carries that are similar to Brand X Hawaiian Shirt, including possibly showing competitors’ products. This type of result would appear to meet customers’ needs, particularly if they aren’t familiar with other Hawaiian shirt brands. They can just enter a name they know in the search box to see who else sells Hawaiian shirts. In fact, who wouldn’t like a search feature to offer this type of result? Well, the makers of Brand X Hawaiian Shirt may not.

As noted in this Fortune story, high-end watchmaker Multi Time Machine has received the support of a U.S. court claiming the search results of one of the world’s biggest of e-commerce site, Amazon, violated their trademark. They claim Amazon displayed competitors’ products when someone typed the trademarked name into the Amazon search engine and people who then made a purchase did so without knowing it is not a product Multi Time Machine manufactures. This argument would seem to be a little different than, say, a customer walking into a jewelry store and asking for a certain watch brand only to have the salesperson say: “We don’t carry that brand, but we do have similar watches.”

This case has been going on for several years so don’t expect this to be the final word on the matter. However, if future decisions continue to go Multi Time Machine’s way, it could have a significant impact on how search engines display results.