Here’s a (somewhat) controversial topic in law firm marketing: Should you bid on your competitor’s branded keywords?

After monitoring thousands of intake calls generated from PPC ads, we have a pretty good idea of the answer.

We believe that most of you should NOT be bidding on competitive branded terms.

Before we get to the ‘why’ let’s nail down a few things.

Search engines like Google allow lawyers to bid on specific words or phrases—called keywords—that will cause their names and ads to pop up when prospective clients use them. Keywords are not sold exclusively to one user, so the same keywords may be used by a number of advertisers.

That’s why it’s common to see ads from several law firms in addition to the law firm originally searched by a prospect.

There are four paid ads at the top of the page, and three more at the bottom. In between are the organic results that appear based on complicated algorithms that SEO agencies work to manipulate to your advantage.

It might seem like marketing hardball but it is widely done across all industries, including law.

Comin at ya!

So How Does Competitive Keyword Advertising Work?

Through branded keyword advertising, a lawyer will bid on the brand name of rival lawyer or firm as a keyword in Google AdWords. For example, if a law firm is competing against Larry H. Parker in Southern California they may want their firm’s ads to be also be seen whenever someone searches for “Larry H. Parker” online.

As a result, the competing law firm and, perhaps more important, a link to the competing firm’s website, will be displayed on Google’s results page anytime a potential client searches for Larry H. Parker’s name.

Like this –


But what if my brand name is trademarked?!

Trademarks do indeed protect the use of the trademarked name in advertising copy.  However, when your competitor bids on your brand name as a keyword that in turn triggers their ad, the user will not see your brand name in their ad copy – therefore it’s usually not a problem.

Legal Ethics Questions

Eric Goldman, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law co-authored a great paper on this topic a couple of years ago with Angel Reyes III, Managing Partner at Reyes Brown Reilley in Dallas, TX.

“Competitive keyword advertising has been a prominent part of the keyword advertising industry for quite some time, so it is not surprising that lawyers would try it too and display ads when consumers search for the names of rival law firms or lawyers.

Advertising by lawyers has been controversial for a long time, but progressively we have recognized that lawyer advertising can benefit both the advertiser and prospective consumers of legal services.

Lawyers are notorious laggards when adopting and embracing emerging technological developments.  Thus, even as the wars over competitive keyword advertising wind down everywhere else, it is not surprising that the legal industry is still working through its own (delayed) catharsis about the legitimacy of competitive keyword advertising.

But other than the North Carolina ethics opinion, competitive keyword advertising by lawyers is not restricted by intellectual property law or attorney advertising rules. As a result, it seems that North Carolina’s rule is an outlier that needs to be fixed, and North Carolina bar regulators should reconsider the matter.

We also hope other bar regulators will affirmatively acknowledge, like the Florida bar did, that competitive keyword advertising is permissible.”

Although most states have not addressed the legal ethics question about bidding on your competitor’s brand name, a few states have such as North Carolina, Texas, and Florida (and have reached different conclusions in considering an identical scenario):

NC has ruled it is an Ethics violation (adopted in 2012)

FL has ruled it is NOT an Ethics violation (adopted in 2013)

TX has ruled it is NOT an Ethics violation (adopted in 2016)

Ok, But Does it Work?

If Digital Rain managed our attorney campaigns the traditional way we’d use Google’s conversion metrics as the main performance indicator and they would show competitive branded terms generate a positive ROI for our clients.

The data would be showing clicks and calls from those ads. Super!

Sorry, not so super…

Our intake monitoring has proven time and again that bidding on competitor’s names just generates a lot of bad calls. In Google Analytics, they look like conversions, but in real life they are not and do not pass Digital Rain’s lead quality litmus which requires the lead meet these requirements:

  1. First-time caller
  2. In your practice areas geolocation
  3. They believe they may need a lawyer who practices your area of law

Many of them will be will be immediate hang ups, and some will say they must have called the wrong number and then hang up.

Another way to think about it:

Consider the job of a political campaign manager running an election. They’re not trying to convince folks who’ve already made up their minds; they are trying to sway the middle.

This is why swing states get almost all the focus in presidential elections. Campaign managers don’t want to spend precious dollars on folks whose mind is already made up.

The same is true here – if they typed your competitor’s name chances are their mind is already made up.

You may wonder why is bidding on your own keywords so cheap.

The main reason is simple:

Google wants to deliver the best, most relevant result to its users and has created a system to reward the most relevant and penalize the least relevant.

Google will charge you a lot more whenever your keyword has a low quality score.

As you can imagine, bidding on your own last name is very relevant. Google sees your bid on a competitor’s name as far less relevant.

For example, when someone searches ‘Larry H. Parker’ and subsequently clicks on his ad/landing page they will see a lot of copy about Larry H. Parker, as would be expected.

Google deems this a relevant ad/landing page and gives his ad a great quality score (1 being the poorest and 10 being great). Good quality scores translate into a lower CPC for his branded search terms.

However, since his competitors don’t have any copy in their ads/landing pages that say ‘Larry H. Parker’ their ads will be given a much lower quality score by Google since they are not very relevant. This means they have to pay up to run their ads next to his.

In dollar terms, a click on one of Parker’s ads may cost him $10 and cost his low-quality score competitor $80. Now you may be saying, well $80 is less than some of my most expensive keywords. But, remember, this $80 click is likely going to cost $240 to get a phone call and will most likely result in a “sorry I have the wrong number” outcome.

So, why did we start this article by saying it was not a good strategy for MOST firms?

If your firm has spent a lot of money turning your brand into a household name you may have a shot at stealing away a case from a less established firm. And if you have a gargantuan marketing budget and the desire to get every case possible regardless of acquisition costs, you may want to bid on competitors names.

Otherwise, spend your money on the folks who haven’t made up their mind. There are plenty of them out there, I promise.