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How Social Media Helped One Woman Reclaim More Than $17,000 in Legal Fees … in 12 Hours

Lauren Eichmann

The term 'SEO' was the target of a trademark battle

Two years ago SEO specialist Rhea Drysdale went on a mission: to prevent Jason Gambert from trademarking the term ‘SEO.’

As the founder of Outspoken Media, Drysdale said opposing Gambert has become one of the biggest challenges in her life, right up there with starting her company, chairing a non-profit and even getting married.

After filing her notice to fight Gambert’s ‘SEO’ trademark application on April 24, 2008, Drysdale officially won the battle on March 11, 2010. In the process, she underwent a tremendous amount of frustration and racked up more than $17,000 in legal fees.

Merely hours after sharing her story (and less than a week after winning the case), Drysdale was able to regain all the money she invested throughout the two years.  Yet it wasn't because she appeared on "Oprah" or the "Today" show. She was neither written up in a New York Times article, nor did she have a columnist write about the issue in The Wall Street Journal. So how did individuals feel compelled to donate?

Enter social media.

To give some background, Jason Gambert desired to own the trademark for the word ‘SEO’ “to prevent companies from selling ‘SEO’ as a service under false pretenses.” This meant that for those who desired to market SEO services, they would first have to abide by a process approved by the SEO trademark requirements.

Shortly after Gambert submitted his trademark application, four oppositions were filed. All but Drysdale eventually dropped out of the fight.


Rhea Drysdale

Drysdale never asked for money, nor felt like the industry owed her anything. She wrote a blog post about her story, however.

She writes:

Was it worth it? I don’t know. I do know that I learned an invaluable amount about business, trademark law, the SEO industry, my relationships and myself. I never asked the industry to donate to the cause, because this was my responsibility. I chose to pursue this in the face of criticism. I knew that it was something I believed to be wrong. I knew the USPTO did not understand what our industry did or how SEO worked. I wanted to fight for that knowledge and I won.”

Not only did she prevent ‘SEO’ from being trademarked, but she won the support from many in the industry.

It spurred additional conversation and a multitude of blog posts, like that of Brent Payne’s (Bald SEO Blog), where he entreated Drysdale to set up a PayPal account and encouraged others in the industry to donate. He even promoted it via Twitter. It would take just 250 people donating $100 each to cover Drysdale’s expenses, Payne said. He continued, writing to Drysdale directly: “No solitary person should have to carry this financial burden as it gives you no advantage having won this case.”

Barry Schwartz, News Editor of Search Engine Land, also wrote of his support:

I think we all owe Rhea, and all those involved in this process, a deep sense of gratitude for helping fight the attempt to trademark SEO. Rhea, and people like her, they are what makes the SEO industry so special.”

Drysdale wrote a follow-up blog post after people started donating, expressing her surprise that she had found so much support in the blogosphere:

I thought I was just telling the story of the past two years and this case, which took so much from me and the other opposers. Within minutes people were asking how they could send donations and I had to accept the fact that this was no longer just my fight. I gave Barry my PayPal address and within eight hours, the SEO community has raised almost $14,000!”

Walker Sands Communications contributed to the cause as well. In her e-mail response to us, Drysdale expressed her gratitude for such an “overwhelming industry-wide response. I'm still in awe of the kindness the industry showed today. In twelve hours you helped raise almost two years worth of legal expenses.” Drysdale said she plans to share the money with others in the industry who also incurred legal fees.

So what’s the lesson learned here? Social media -- and blogging in particular -- can be a very powerful platform.

As a case in point, Drysdale earned back thousands of dollars that she otherwise may have never seen again.

While traditional forms of media can be a powerful way to communicate your brand’s value and authority, relay your expertise and talk about issues that are important to you, it’s best not to underestimate the authority of today’s bloggers as well. You will recognize that exposure in these types of outlets – especially niche industry blogs – can be just as valuable as national exposure in a well-respected publication or news station. Drysdale did.