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Competitive Keyword Advertising Reaches the Legal Field

Whether you love them or hate them, lawyer referral services are showing a newfound interest in online marketing. Earlier this year, they broke Google’s algorithm for its local SEO box, forcing the search engine to tweak its system. Now, they’re engaging in some good old fashioned competitive keyword marketing.

Prominent Texas Lawyer Sues Referral Service for Competitive Keyword Ads

In every state, there’s a personal injury lawyer who fills the airwaves with advertising and a nickname for their firm. In Texas, it’s Jim Adler. He’s “The Texas Hammer,” and his TV commercials are ubiquitous, running around 87,000 times every year in the San Antonio area.

His commercials are so well known they’ve been featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show. Since 2000, the Adler Firm claims that it spent over $100 million on advertising.

Knowing that his nickname is his calling card, Adler has trademarked the phrase, including its Spanish equivalent.

Despite the trademarks, a lawyer referral website has been purchasing “click-to-call” advertisements for mobile searches like “Texas Hammer,” basically paying to jump to the top of the listings for searches that are clearly designed to go to the Adler Law Firm.

Now, the Adler Firm has filed a lawsuit against the referral service for trademark infringement.

Competitive Keyword Advertising

We’ve covered competitive keyword advertising, before. The gist of it is simple: Buy search engine ads for search queries that are clearly designed to find your competitors. If the firm across the street from Thompson Criminal Defense is Lorenzo Law, Thompson can do competitive keyword advertising by buying pay-per-click ads that (for a price) put their site to the top of the listing for searches for “Lorenzo Law.” People looking for Lorenzo Law by name see Thompson Criminal Defense at the very top of the results page.

The practice is ethically borderline, at best. When trademarks are involved, it can lead to a lawsuit, as shown by the trademark infringement case brought by Edible Arrangements over a year ago. That lawsuit, though, was filed against Google, itself, for its role in allowing the alleged infringement to happen. It was pushed into arbitration long ago, with no new (public) developments.

The claims brought by the Adler Firm show that, as we expected, the trademark v. competitive keyword advertising battle has come to the legal marketing field. That this one has been filed against the referral service that’s actually buying the ads and not the intermediary search engine, though, makes it more intriguing and more likely to be resolved publicly.

A New Feature in Search Engine Marketing: Click-to-Call Advertisements

There is also a new factor at play in the Adler case: Click-to-call ads.

Click-to-calls (CTCs) are a recent update on the Google platform. They’re very similar to pay-per-click (PPC) ads in that you buy them and only pay if someone actually clicks on it. They also look similar to PPCs:

Click-to-call advertisement

There are two big differences, though:

  1. CTCs only show up when you are searching the internet on a device that can make phone calls, and
  2. Clicking on a CTC doesn’t bring you to the website – it calls the phone number, instead.

This makes CTCs especially vulnerable to competitive keyword advertising. As the Adler Firm mentions in its complaint, searchers who use devices that see CTCs are less likely to closely examine a listing before clicking on it. They’re searching from a phone, which often means they need a lawyer now. As a result, the referral service is likely leaching hundreds of unsuspecting callers, and some very warm leads, away from their intended destination.

The Trickle-Down Effect of Competitive Keyword Marketing: Higher Prices for Everyone

But the pain doesn’t end, there. Having a competitor coming in to purchase your branded searches like this has a secondary effect: It raises the costs of buying those ads, yourself. This makes it far more difficult to combat a competitive keyword advertising attack by buying ads for your own searches.