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Understanding What Competitor Bidding Is & How It Affects Your Law Firm’s Digital Marketing Strategy

Across the worldwide web, there are 2.3 million searches being submitted on Google every second. With so many people searching for different things on the internet, standing out among the crowd is paramount. Google ads can be a great way to achieve this and drive relevant traffic to your website right when people are searching for personal injury attorneys in your area, but without having to wait for organic SEO efforts to kick in.

However, navigating the world of paid Google ads isn’t easy and there are many facets that can be difficult to understand alone. For example, one common question our team of digital marketers at Whitehardt hears a lot is how “competitor bidding” works. Continue reading for our breakdown of how Google ads and competitor bidding can work for your law firm.

Google Search Ads and Competitor Bidding

Google gives advertisers the ability to bid on keywords (or search phrases) in order to have their ads show on the search results page for that keyword (or search phrase).

So, when someone searches for something related to your business, you can show your ad to them, i.e. show my search ad to people looking for “car accident lawyers near me.”

Typically, the first 3-4 results at the top of the search results page are ads. Multiple businesses can bid on the same keywords, so multiple businesses can show up in the ads sections of search results.

Advertisers add the keywords they’d like their ads to show for in their Google Ads account.

Here’s an example search for “lawn care near me.” Three different companies have ads shown. Note that “TruGreen” is the top ad.

Local Search Result for "Lawn Care Near Me"A common practice is to add the brand names of your competitors as keywords in your Google Ads campaign. That way, when someone searches for a competitor, you get to show your ad on the search results page.

The idea is to draw the searcher away from your competitor and present yourself as an alternative.

Here is an example of a search for the brand term “TruGreen,” one of the advertisers in the previous example.

Local Search Results for "Trugreen"

You can see other lawn care providers have ads showing in the search results for a “trugreen” search.

This can happen one of two ways, keeping with this example:

  1. Lawndoctor.com and spring-green.com have both added the keyword “trugreen” to their Google Ads campaign and are actively bidding to show their ad on searches for that specific term. This is the most common way it happens.
  2. A more recent nuanced way: Google increasingly associates meaning between brands and their service categories. If an advertiser adds a keyword, like “lawn care”, as a ‘Broad’ type in Google Ads, it’s possible that Google can associate the meaning of that keyword with another advertiser’s brand name. And it’s possible an advertiser bidding on “lawn care” in a ‘Broad’ way could show in a search for the term “TruGreen”.

Number one is more prevalent, while number two is a newer development.

The practice does not violate Google policy and they do not police it. The only time it violates their policy is if one advertiser uses another advertiser’s Trademark in their ad copy. So, Adidas can show ads all day to people searching for Nike, but they can’t use the word Nike in their ad.

Their official policy states:

Google's Guidelines for Trademarks as Keywords

Google's Guidelines for Trademarks as Keywords continued

Link to their Trademark Policy

Google lifted the ban on bidding on competitors’ branded keywords in 2008, and since then it’s been completely acceptable to bid against your competitor’s brand, as long as you don’t mention their trademark name within your ad copy.

Here’s an example of someone bidding on the keyword “Whitehardt” and using “Whitehardt” in the ad copy:

Local Search Results for "Whitehardt"

This practice is less common, especially among attorneys. However, a lawsuit was recently filed here in Nashville between two law firms over this very issue. It’s still pending, but you can read the complaint HERE.

What Do State Bars Have To Say About All This?

Arguably, just bidding on another law firm’s name for the purposes of siphoning off their business could be considered “false and misleading.”

State bars in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas have offered differing opinions on this practice:

From an article on The Lawyerist:

“Back in 2012, North Carolina adopted a formal ethics opinion that prohibits a lawyer from “select[ing] another lawyer’s name as a keyword for use in an Internet search engine company’s search-based advertising program.” The opinion found that doing so violated North Carolina’s Rules of Professional Conduct–specifically Rule 8.4(c), which prohibits “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” North Carolina found that dishonest conduct includes conduct that is unfair or is not straightforward, and that by functionally “purchasing” the rights to another firm’s name in the Google search met that criterion.

In 2013, Florida indicated it intended to follow the North Carolina approach and proposed an ethics opinion banning competitor keyword searching. It didn’t pass, so the status quo in Florida is that it is not prohibited, but there is no ringing endorsement of the practice either.

Texas went a good deal farther than Florida and issued an ethics opinion affirmatively endorsing the practice and explicitly rejecting the North Carolina approach. First, Texas looked at the issue through the lens of Rule 7.01(d) (prohibiting attorneys from falsely holding themselves out as partners of another attorney) and Rule 7.02(a) (prohibiting false or misleading communications about your firm’s qualifications.)

The Texas State Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee found that the practice doesn’t violate either of those rules, in large part because people who are searching the internet for legal services are presumed to be smart enough to understand how Google searches work.

[A] person familiar enough with the internet to use a search engine to seek a lawyer should be aware that there are advertisements presented on web pages showing search results, it appears highly unlikely that a reasonable person using an internet search engine would be misled into thinking that every search result indicates that a lawyer shown in the list of search results has some type of relationship with the lawyer whose name was used in the search.

Texas also noted that the way North Carolina had interpreted Rule 8.4(c) (which is functionally the same as Texas Rule 8.4(a)(3)) was incorrect, again in large part because people searching the internet know how to search the internet.

[G]iven the general use by all sorts of businesses of names of competing businesses as keywords in search-engine advertising, such use by Texas lawyers in their advertising is neither dishonest nor fraudulent nor deceitful and does not involve misrepresentation.

Basically, Texas’s take can be boiled down to this: if someone is well-versed enough in the mechanics of a Google search to search for law firms, they’re well-versed enough in the practice of competitive keyword searching to understand that when searching for Lawyer A, if Lawyer B also comes up in the search, that doesn’t mean Lawyers A and B are partners.”

So, according to state bars, it’s increasingly considered an acceptable practice.

What Can You Do?

There’s nothing you can do about it with Google (except in rare circumstances), and little recourse with the State Bar.

The best you can do is:

  • Prepare for the rare circumstance by trademarking your firm name.
  • Nicely ask your competitor to stop.
  • Engage in the practice yourself.

Trademark Your Firm Name

If a competitor uses your firm name in their ad copy, you can submit a complaint to Google providing proof of your trademark.

Google’s Help For Trademark Owners https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/2562124

You could sue them if you want too, but it’s unclear what you’d get out of it.

Here is an article on how to Register a Trademark for Your Company Name.

It’s a good, proactive step you can take to protect your brand.

Ask Nicely

One of our clients has been on the forefront of combating other firms who are bidding on their name.

Below are two steps that can be successful in stopping competitors from bidding on your firm name:

Contact one of the owners by phone and advise the strategy is unethical according to available case law in the United States and the state rules of professional conduct.

If we get no response over the phone, or a negative response, we send a letter to the firm. All firms have complied and usually have no knowledge that their ad agency is engaging in the practice of leeching. See letter below for reference:

Dear __________,

I am sending this to you, as I do not know who is responsible for your Google ad (Pay-Per-Click) campaign for your firm (company).

We routinely check Google to see if any law firm (company) is bidding on Pay-Per-Click ad words that contain the words “Firm Name” or variations of my name (like “Firm Nome” or “Fame Name” or “Firm Name Lawyer”).

During a recent search, your law firm (company) came up as a paid ad when searching “Firm Name.” This means that your law firm (company) is bidding on the phrase “Firm Name” as part of your Pay-Per-Click campaign. When a company bids on a competitor’s name or associated brand keywords, we consider this “leeching.”

I believe that this practice is unethical. While this state has yet to directly address this issue, other states have determined that leeching is a violation of the ethical rules for attorneys. In particular, North Carolina has issued a formal ethics opinion stating that leeching is a violation of the ethical rules (2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 14, issues April 27, 2012). I believe that this state would have the same position should this address be raised.

In addition, I have trademarked “Firm Name” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Reg. No. 3,978,005 on June 24, 2011). Any use of my name without my permission for commercial or marketing purposes would be a direct violation of my trademark rights.

Of course, we are familiar with the integrity of your law firm (company), and the excellent reputation of your attorneys. I can only assume that you were unaware that this was happening. It may be that you hired an outside vendor to handle your Google campaign and your outside vendor did this without your knowledge or permission.

I am requesting that you immediately stop this practice, and notify your outside vendor to discontinue this strategy. I would ask that you immediately provide me written confirmation that you have received this letter and that you have notified your vendor to stop this practice.

Please consider this a formal “cease and desist” request as your infringement upon my trademark. Since you did not receive my permission to utilize my trademark in your marketing activities, any continued practice of doing so will be deemed to be a willful infringement, and, pursuant 17 U.S.C. 101 et seq., your company (law firm) could be liable for statutory damages as high as $150,000 as set forth in Section 504 ( C )(2).

Questions About Google Ads and Competitor Bidding? Whitehardt Can Help.

At Whitehardt, our legal marketing experts can manage and optimize every part of your Google ads campaigns, including helping you fight against or implement competitor bidding strategies.

For a comprehensive plan that will put you in front of your target audience when they have a direct need for your services, call us today at info@whitehardt.com, or fill out our online contact form to set up a meeting with our team.

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