A San Francisco tour operator, which is dependent on search engine marketing to attract clients, sued Groupon, alleging false advertising, or “bait and switch,” in its Google Adwords tactics.
The civil lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California March 17 by San Francisco Comprehensive Tours, which does business as San Francisco Shuttle Tours andÂ Wine Country Tour Shuttle.
The tour operator, in business since 2005, offers bus and walking tours of San Francisco, John Muir Woods and the vineyards of northern California, and even features a ferry/bay cruise to Sausalito.
Comprehensive tours alleges that in the fall of 2010 Groupon began buying Google AdWords for “San Francisco Tours,” “Alcatraz Tours” and “Napa Wine Tours,” promising up to 90% discounts, but when users clicked on these sponsored ads and navigated to the Groupon website, they’d find, with a handful of exceptions, that no such tours were being offered.
So, for example, the following image of an exhibit in the suit shows Groupon with the top Google AdWords result for “san francisco tours” at 90% off, yet Groupon wasn’t offering tours of the city:
Once Groupon began buying these keywords, Comprehensive Tours saw “that the cost of its click-throughs began to skyrocket, and its ranking in the purchased placement area for searches … began to decline” while Groupon’s placements on these terms began to appear “at or near the top,” the suit alleges.
“By falsely representing to users and consumers interested in “San Francisco Tours” and “Napa Wine Tours” (and others such as “Alcatraz Tours” and “Alcatraz Tickets”) that it provides access to such services, defendant Groupon induces users and consumers to click through to its landing page,” the suit says. “This, in turn, artificially raises defendant Groupon’s objective popularity score, further cementing its placement at or near the top of the paid placement ads.”
Comprehensive Tours claims its SEM costs have soared to such an extent because of Groupon’s tactics that it will be forced to shut its business unless the court issues an injunction barring Groupon from such practices.
The injunction the tour operator seeks would prohibit Groupon “from using headlines, keywords, ad excerpts, or urls in response to Google searches that represent or imply a good or a service that Groupon and its advertisers are not in fact offering to users and consumers at the time of the search, at discounts that Groupon and its advertisers are not in fact offering to users and consumers at the time of the search” for terms “San Francisco Tours,” “Napa Wine Tours,” “Alcatraz Tours” and “Alcatraz Tickets.”
The tour operator also seeks damages and attorneys’ fees.