April 01, 2020

Tourism office prevails in complaint

AUGUSTA – A complaint of unfair competition filed against the Maine Office of Tourism by a Searsmont-based Web consulting business was dismissed by a state advisory committee.

The complaint, filed by Maine Coast Design, owned and operated by Lance Dutson, a critic of tourism officials, charged the tourism office with unfairly competing with small local businesses by outbidding them for sponsored search engine results.

Sponsored results are listed at the top and on the right side of an Internet search on sites such as Google and Yahoo. Businesses and other entities bid on getting their Web addresses listed in response to searches made on certain key words.

Dutson filed the complaint, he said in a recent interview, when he found his clients were being outbid by the state tourism office on searches made on terms like “Camden Maine” and “Bar Harbor Maine.”

Some of the local businesses are also in the tourism business, and their potential customers are being directed to the state’s “VisitMaine.com” site. Also affected, Dutson claimed, were nontourism businesses such as a plumbing business hoping to get its information before someone searching for local service listings.

In his complaint filed in April with the Advisory Committee on Fair Competition with Private Enterprise, Dutson argued that the state, with deeper pockets than small local businesses, was unfairly competing.

The committee, an appointed panel under the auspices of Department of Administrative and Financial Services, met on the complaint on June 8, July 13 and Aug. 17.

Among its findings, the committee noted the Maine Office of Tourism in 2006 spent just 2 percent of its annual advertising budget, or $72,000, on what is known as “pay per click” Web search advertising.

The panel concluded that “there was competition by virtue of the fact that MOT is bidding for advertising space in the marketplace with other business. However, the impact of this competition could not be quantified by the committee as unfair,” according to its report.

The committee also noted that if the tourism office wins the top sponsored Web listing, two other spots would still be available at the top of a Web page. Information presented to the committee revealed these second- and third-place positions were as effective as the top-place ads.

Dutson was heartened, he said by e-mail Tuesday to the Bangor Daily News, that the committee “recognized that the debate could not be properly vetted within their arena, and considered it a significant enough policy issue to refer it to the legislature for review.”

Dutson also wrote that he is pleased that the tourism office’s marketing programs are “getting increased scrutiny, and that the Legislature will end up determining what is the proper course of action, and not an insular and defensive state agency.”

Domna Giatas, clerk of the state advisory committee, said the report will be forwarded to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.

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