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Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman believes that Herbalife, a multi-level marketing company, is an illegal pyramid scheme.

And he says not just talking: he's shorted Herbalife stock, which is publicly-traded, to the tune of $1bn.

Ackman's first salvo against Herbalife came in December, when he announced his position and released a 300-plus page presentation explaining why he believes Herbalife is a scam.

Other prominent hedge fund managers, including Dan Loeb, the activist investor largely responsible for last year's shake-up at Yahoo, sense opportunity of their own, and hoping to capitalize on Ackman's potential overaggressiveness, are betting against Ackman.

That has set up what could be one of Wall Street's most epic battles in recent memory, and whoever wins stands to gain billions.

Wall Street meets AdWords

What's so intriguing about the Herbalife battle is the fact that it's being fought in public. While Wall Street may not be the shroud of secrecy it at times seems to be, the public high-stakes fight over Herbalife is not common.

Who will win? That might come down to who does the best marketing. If Ackman is successful in convincing the world that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, it could put pressure on regulators to step in and investigate the company.

That would certainly hurt the company's stock, and it could even put it out of business. If Herbalife and the hedge fund managers betting on Herbalife can mount a vigorous defense to Ackman's claims, however, Ackman could become the victim of a massive short squeeze.

In an effort to get information out, Ackman has unveiled a website, factsaboutherbalife.com, and has stated that he's prepared to spend whatever it takes to convince the world that he's right about Herbalife.

Some of his spend is apparently going to Google. A search for 'Herbalife' and related terms show AdWords ads for the factsaboutherbalife.com site.

According to Google's AdWords Keyword Tool, there are more than 2.7m monthly Google searches for Herbalife, and there appears to be a reasonable amount of competition for this and certain other Herbalife-related terms. Currently, the only ads that appear higher than Ackman's are those paid for by Herbalife itself.

A sign of things to come?

Will Ackman's AdWords campaign be effective? Perhaps, although it does appear that there's room for improvement, such as creating more specific copy for different specific search terms. For instance, terms that would normally be associated with a search from a new prospective Herbalife distributor might implore the viewer to read this before signing up.

But what's really interesting here is that the AdWords spend in the Herbalife battle might be a sign of things to come. Here, Ackman isn't soliciting investment in his funds, so his campaigns wouldn't appear to run afoul of any laws. But with the Securities and Exchange Commission set to relax the rules on general solicitation, which will allow financial firms and funds to solicit accredited investors, we could see a flood of Wall Street money coming into paid search as well as other forms of digital marketing.

That would obviously be good news for well-positioned publishers, ad firms and digital marketers, which may find themselves in a position to make money on Wall Street regardless of whether the market is up or down.

Patricio Robles

Published 10 January, 2013 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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