Mark Nutritionals, creator of Body Solutions diet products, has filed four suits against AltaVista, Kanoodle, FindWhat.com and Overture Services, claiming the pay-for-play search engines are engaging in an illegal bait-and-switch model for their own financial gain.
When a Web surfer enters a particular search term, such search engines arrange results based on how much a company pays to have its name on the list. As a result, people who enter the term "body solutions" in the search bar actually see a list of the product's competitors that have paid to be associated with the term.
The complaint, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Antonio, seeks $440 million in damages and alleges such practices are a "willful attempt to mislead users."
"The vice lies in using our name to draw people to the sites of our competition," Jonathan Pauerstein, an attorney representing Mark Nutritionals. Pauerstein said he believes the lawsuit is the first of its kind.
A similar battle has long beenbetween brand-name companies and small sites putting trademarks they do not own in their meta-tags, the keywords used to index Web sites. The practice enables a relatively unknown site to pop up when someone is searching, for example, on the term Playboy.
The search engine companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.