The Cutthroat Marketing Strategy of Bidding on Another Lawyer’s or Law Firm’s Name in Google Ads, 1120 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, November 2020, #28

AuthorBy Stephan Futeral
PositionVol. 32 Issue 3 Pg. 28

The Cutthroat Marketing Strategy of Bidding on Another Lawyer’s or Law Firm’s Name in Google Ads

Vol. 32 Issue 3 Pg. 28

South Carolina BAR Journal

November, 2020

By Stephan Futeral

Recently, the South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Committee issued Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-01 regarding whether a lawyer may engage in keyword advertising by using her competitors’ names as search terms for placement of Google Ads.[1] Essentially, the Committee’s opinion paves the way for a lawyer to compete in paid keyword advertising that includes the names of competing lawyers and law firms.

This article examines the practice of bidding on a competing lawyer’s or law firm’s name in Google Ads from three important perspectives: (1) a marketing perspective; (2) a legal liability perspective; and (3) a professional ethics perspective regarding lawyer advertising. This article also explains why it is risky business for lawyers and law firms to market this way.

By way of background, I am an attorney, I own a digital marketing agency for lawyers, and I am certified by Google as a specialist in Google Ads. A couple of years ago, I was interviewed by the New Jersey Law Journal to get my opinion regarding a lawsuit by the New Jersey law firm of Helmer, Conley & Kasselman (Helmer) against a two-lawyer firm, Hark & Hark (Hark), for allegedly using Google Ads to hijack potential clients. In that lawsuit, Helmer alleged that Hark “purchased Plaintiffs’ names and numerous variants thereon as Google Ads in order to divert Plaintiffs’ potential clients to Defendants.” Specifically, Helmer alleged that Hark was bidding on keywords (and phrases) such as “helmer conley,” “helmer,” “helmer law office,” “helmer kasselman,” “helmer lawyer,” “helmer defense,” “conley law,” and “helmer and associates” so that a search within Google for these terms displayed advertisements for Hark’s law firm. As I will explain, Hark allegedly went a step further than just bidding on keywords related to the Helmer Law Firm.[2]

Using another lawyer’s or law firm’s name to trigger your sponsored Google Ads

Using a competitors’ name as a keyword to trigger Google Ads is a common practice among businesses and industries including home services, furniture and bedding, automotive, and many more. For example, if you search Google for “Terminix,” you may see ads for Orkin and other competitors as in Figure 1.

Like Orkin, lawyers also “bid” on other lawyers’ names to trigger Google Ads by telling Google the amount a lawyer is willing to pay for each click on their ads. For example, I ran a search for a well-marketed Charleston lawyer’s name, and Google displayed the ads in Figure 2.

These lawyers’ ads did not display by accident. These ads displayed because the competing lawyer’s name is being used as a key term in these Google Ads campaigns.

Google’s policy on using competitor’s names as keywords in ads

We have established that bidding on a competitor’s name is a common practice among Google Ads marketers; the next question is whether Google allows marketers to bid on keywords this way. The answer is yes.

From Google’s perspective, there is little to no restriction on using your competitors’ trademarks and names as keywords to trigger your Google Ads. Specifically, Google states: “We don’t investigate or restrict trademarks as keywords.”[3] However, Google is stricter about including a competitor’s name or trademark in your ad text. If Google receives a complaint, Google may restrict the use of the trademark in your ad text or even stop your ad from running.[4]

Is bidding on competitors’ names an effective Google Ads strategy?

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