Google AdWords: Too Clever For Your Own Good

Google-AdwordsYou know those ads that appear on the right side of a Google search that seem eerily geared to what you just typed in? Those are intelligent advertisements generated by Google AdWords, and by now we’re all familiar with them to a certain degree. My first experience was actually when Gmail had an ad in my account for something related to Sherlock Holmes, which confused me greatly, until I realized that I had mentioned Sherlock in the body of an email I’d just sent. Then I was just creeped out. For most of us, the creeped-out feeling regarding intelligent advertising has faded, so now it’s time to find out how we can use them…

Recently, one of my absolute favorite sources of information regarding legal tech,, sent me a newsletter detailing 10 Steps for success with Google AdWords. For those of you who don’t know, Google AdWords is an advertising service: you create an ad to appear on someone’s screen accompanying results from a Google search. The ad is linked to some part of your website, and you provide Google with a set of Keywords that will trigger your ad when someone uses those words in a search.

Yeah, but does it work? Google charges you every time someone clicks on your ad, and last year Google’s ad-related revenue exceeded $50 billion. So yes, it works.

[poll id=”5″]TechnoLawyer provided several excellent pieces of advice, including:

  • Carefully select and optimize your keywords
  • Understand the auction process behind how Google decides what ads go where
  • Don’t trust Google to understand your market

… and several self-evident suggestions, including:

  • Understand your market
  • Target the right client.

However, anyone looking to utilize Google AdWords, or any other keyword-based intelligent advertising system (or “search-based advertising program”) should be VERY careful that their ad, or more importantly, their KEYWORDS, are not too clever for their own good.

The North Carolina State Bar ruled that it was an ethical violation to use a competing attorney’s name as a keyword. Based on Rule 8.4(c)’s prohibition of dishonest conduct, the ruling extends to any keywords that “show[ ] a lack of fairness or straightforwardness.”

Essentially, what happened in this case is that Law Firm A, when purchasing advertising on Google’s AdWords platform, listed the name of one of their top competitors, Law Firm B, as a keyword for their ad. The result was that if someone used the name of Law Firm B in a Google search, the intelligent ads would pull up, among other advertisements, the ad for Law Firm A. In ruling that Law Firm A’s conduct was a violation of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, it is important to note that the reason Law Firm A’s conduct was unethical is that it attempted to redirect traffic from their competitor in a manner that relied on the name value of their competitor’s firm. Essentially, a law firm is not allowed to trade on the name value of another firm in attempting to gain business, even if the end result is offering the customer a comparable legal service.

I recall (but cannot remember specifically) a recent case in a northeastern state where similar conduct was not held to be a violation of copyright law. One firm, after learning that a competitor had been doing precisely what Law Firm A did in the North Carolina example, sued under copyright infringement and other trade name-based causes of action. The court there held that no such cause of action was implicated by using a different firm as a keyword for an intelligent search program. Makes me wonder if an ethical complaint, rather than a lawsuit, was the better option for preventing such conduct by the predator law firm.

So when you’re planning your next advertisement utilizing a search-based advertising program, no matter what company it’s with, be sure to CAREFULLY review your keywords and make sure that none of them are designed to redirect work from another attorney into your office. Basically, the NC Ethics Ruling says that you shouldn’t try to be clever or tricky when refining your keywords. And you probably want to review them frequently, just to be sure.