Google recently got a key US patent for location-based advertising and updated a number of other patents covering online advertising tools. Will these have a major impact on web and mobile advertising? Richard Menzies goes “on location” for a closer look.
Topic: Intellectual property
When: January – February 2010
Where: United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO")
Law stated as at: 23 February 2010
Google has recently been granted a key US patent for location-based advertising and has updated a number of patent filings which give an indication of the direction of future online advertising.
What is the location-based patent for?
The patent title is "DETERMINING AND /OR USING LOCATION INFORMATION IN AN AD SYSTEM." Issued on February 23, 2010, the abstract states "The usefulness, and consequently the performance, of advertisements are improved by allowing businesses to better target their ads to a responsive audience." This is carried out by the following methods:
• allowing businesses to target their ads to a responsive audience by determining and using location information, such as country, region, metro area, city or town, postal zip code, telephone area code, etc.;
• using location information when determining a relevancy score of an ad and determining whether or not the ad should be displayed;
• using location information in an attribute arbitration (displaying the price of items nearby and ranking the items according to price);
• tracking ad performance information on the basis of location information;
• using location information to select or modify the content of an ad creative, and/or of a landing page, including allowing different landing pages with different content can be used for different locations; and
• allowing businesses to enter and/or modify location information, such as location information used for targeting and location-dependent price information.
Impact of the patent
Google's patent could potentially have a huge impact on both Web and mobile advertising. Many sites utilise location awareness in their services. Many of those companies may be looking to implement location information in advertisements. Of particular concern is the impact the patent may have on start-ups that use location-based adverts as a vital source of revenue. This type of use could potentially amount to an infringement of Google's patent.
The patent could also impact on mobile phone advertising. The iPhone and Google's Nexus One phone both have built-in GPS technology enabling them to be location aware.
Google's patent could potentially block Apple in its attempt to enter the location-based advertising market, as well as telecoms providers.
Could the patent be granted on this side of the pond?
Although Google's patent has been granted in the US, it remains in the examination stage at the European Patent Office (EPO), which investigates whether the invention meets the requirements of patentability and can therefore lead to the grant of a national patent in the European countries nominated.
The EPO's rules on patentability differ from those of the USPTO and it is therefore not certain that the patent will be granted in Europe. In particular, (unlike the US), the European Patent Convention (EPC) excludes computer software from patentability except if it forms part of a computer system providing a technical effect.
Having said this, it appears that the serving of the ad as described in the Google patent means that the patent may fulfil the requirement of having a technical effect and could therefore be patentable (subject to fulfilling the other requirements of patentability such as being novel and not obvious). The EPO procedure is rather lethargic and it is unlikely that a decision on whether the patent should be granted will be reached in the immediate future.
Google's other US patent applications/registrations
Google has recently updated a number of US patent filings, including the following:
• An application for a method to deliver ad targeting over the internet in which "Statistics are compiled on individual users and networks and the use of the advertisements is tracked to permit targeting of the advertisements of individual users. In response to requests from affiliated sites, an advertising server transmits to people accessing the page of a site an appropriate one of the advertisement based upon profiling of users and networks."
• An application for creating ad overlays for use in digital videos. Overlay advertising is a technique used by online video producers to monetize video content through using an overlay layer to deliver and display an ad unit. The patent involves a web-based user interface that will allow advertisers to specify attributes of a desired video overlay advertisement via a browser-based user interface functioning on a client device and communicated to a server. The server receives the values and in response provides to the client device a video overlay advertisement having the desired attributes, which the client displays within the browser-based user interface. This patent would allow popup banners such as those displayed on YouTube to be linked account keyword and search behaviour to enable the delivery highly relevant advertisements.
• An application for a method of determining user information for use in targeting ads, and determining and serving relevant ads in video games: "information about a person's interests and gaming behavior to be determined by monitoring their online gaming activities (and perhaps making inferences from such activities). Such information may be used to improve ad targeting. For example, such information may used to target ads to be rendered in a video game being played by the person." The patent also offers the possibility to deliver advertisements based on playing time: "If the user has been playing for over two hours continuously, the system may display ads for pizza-hut, coke, coffee and other related goods".
Google has also patented a method for claiming real estate in panoramic or 3D mapping environments for advertising. This enables Google to identify posters, signs and billboards in Street View then offering to advertisers the ability to replace the existing images with more up-to-date ads.
Why this matters:
To date, Google has been cagey as to what it intends to do with its patents. Many companies file patents against technology they have developed to prevent rivals from filing patents which would prevent them from using technology they have developed but not used in the public domain. Given that Google has not pursued patent infringements in the past it may be that this is their intention, rather than preventing other companies from entering similar areas or forcing them to pay royalty fees for the use of the technology. However, until Google's stance is tested the position remains somewhat unclear.