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Grow Your Business Technology

Online Searches Often Lead Customers to Counterfeit Goods

image for Nattakorn Maneerat/Getty Images
Nattakorn Maneerat/Getty Images
  • Up to 60% of online search results bring customers to websites that sell fake goods.
  • When searching for the antibiotic Bactrim on Google, 6 in 10 first-page results sent users to sites that were "very likely" operating unlawfully.
  • Approximately one-third of searches for a specific kind of teether for infants led to potentially harmful products.

If the internet is the world's information highway, then search engines are our GPS navigation systems. After we plug in exactly what we want, sites like Google and Bing send us on our way to (hopefully) find what we're looking for. Yet according to a newly released study, we may need to temper our expectations when it comes to our preferred search engines and our shopping habits. 

Released earlier today by Incopro, the study revealed that up to 60% of all search results lead consumers to websites that peddle fake and potentially dangerous items. Researchers said they conducted the study by researching specific products in five industries: pharmaceuticals, car parts, children's products, safety equipment, and "white goods" like refrigerators and washing machines. What they found, according to the survey, was troubling. 

"Consumers are at risk of buying counterfeit and possibly harmful products as a result of clicking through results generated by search engines they trust," said Simon Baggs, co-founder and CEO of Incopro. "At best, these products will be poor quality or below standard; at worst, they put consumers at risk of harm, particularly when buying pharmaceuticals or safety goods. It is high time search engines played their part in putting a stop to the fakers rather than encouraging them to proliferate through inaction." 

Counterfeit items have been a problem for some of the internet's biggest retailers for a while now. During their analysis, researchers said, they learned about the proliferation of counterfeit goods simply by conducting searches.

According to the survey, 60% of Google's first-page results for a brand name antibiotic called Bactrim led to websites that researchers believe were "very likely to be operating unlawfully." While the biggest concern about counterfeit drugs (and the websites selling them) are potential health issues that could result from taking counterfeit medication, researchers also discovered that these sites could be hacked, leading to potentially dangerous consequences for a person's private data.

The problems didn't stop there, either. Researchers found that when they searched for a "Comotomo teether," nearly one-third of all results featured "potentially harmful products." Consumers searching for new "white goods," or common appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, were regularly sent to a website selling counterfeit products.

While the issue has become widespread on some of the world's top search engines, researchers said there's currently very little legal recourse.

Through the study, researchers questioned how such situations could exist on major search engines like Google, which facilitates roughly 3.5 billion searches every day.

In the course of its research, Incopro's lawyers asked Google to explain its position on these websites and how it removes websites that have infringed on other companies' trademarks. Incopro's lawyers were told that the tech giant didn't "at this time deindex URLs or websites from its Web Search index on trademark grounds upon request," meaning that the company would do nothing – even if your intellectual property was being copied. Google promised, however, that it would "evaluate court orders issued against third parties and, where appropriate (with content specifically identified), voluntarily remove content from our Web Search results."

Researchers also learned that Google would "seek relief from orders against it," meaning that legal rights holders would have to go through litigation to protect their rights and consumer safety. Such a stance doesn't favor the copyright holder or small businesses, since litigation is often slow and expensive.

Incopro is calling on all search engines to remove copyright-infringing sites from search results before governments step in to regulate the issue themselves. To that end, Richard Spearman, QC of 39 Essex Chambers, and Mark Vanhegan, QC of 11 South Square, two leading intellectual property barristers in the U.K., have issued a legal opinion on Incopro's research, concluding that there's no reason why intellectual protections can't be done at the search engine level.

"Given that legal backdrop, it is perhaps surprising to read in the White Paper that a number of search engine providers seem to have adopted the approach that they should not take any steps to block or delist even websites which they know to be marketing only trade mark infringing goods," they wrote. "We consider that this may be a too simplistic and legally risky approach."

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. Currently, he is responsible for reviewing tax software and online fax services. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.