Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original online publication.
How would you feel if you typed your law firm's name into an Internet search engine and saw a competitor's name listed first in the results?
New Haven, Conn., personal injury lawyers Michael Stratton and Joel Faxon were irate this week when they discovered that anyone Googling "Stratton Faxon" would find the firm's Web site listed in the second position.
Above it, shaded in light yellow to indicate a paid advertisement, was a listing labeled "Defending Patients’ Rights." Smaller type showed the URL www.SGTlaw.com, which belongs to the Stamford, Conn., personal injury firm of Silver, Golub & Teitell.
On Wednesday, Stratton Faxon filed suit against Google in New Haven Superior Court, claiming that the communications giant improperly sold advertising rights to the Stratton Faxon name. The complaint alleges tortious interference with a business relationship, violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and unjust enrichment, on grounds that Google paid nothing for selling the firm name.
Stratton Faxon has asked for a $50,000 pre-judgment lien against Google. It's also pursuing an injunction to prevent Google from selling Connecticut law firm names as so-called adwords. "I don't think Google should make money selling my law firm's name," said Stratton.
Though Google is the target of the suit, the claim set off a war of words involving two of the state's pre-eminent law firms. Silver Golub initially said it was unaware of the situation, denied any devious motives and added that Stratton Faxon could have addressed the matter with a phone call instead of a lawsuit. By Wednesday evening, Silver Golub ads no longer turned up in searches for Stratton Faxon.
On a larger scale, the suit is part of a national trend. Several other companies have taken legal action against Google after searching for their own business name and finding, to their dismay, an ad for a competitor listed first. In a well-publicized case, FirePond, a software company, filed a class action suit against Google in federal court in Texas last month. The suit charges Google with trademark infringement and challenges Google's policies on behalf of all trademark owners in the state.
American Airlines and Geico insurance, among others, have reportedly filed similar suits against Google and settled them.
It was after reading an article about the FirePond complaint that Stratton did a search for his own firm name, and found the link to SGTlaw.com.
In the suit, Stratton alleges: "After contacting Google, it became clear that SGT was purchasing the Stratton Faxon name from Google to have their ads appear whenever a customer entered 'Stratton Faxon.'"
In an interview, Stratton said: "If it wasn't so damned deceptive, I'd be very flattered," he said. “"That's the oldest advertising trick in the book, trying to take over the name of the competitor."
Faxon said he has "no concept" how long this has been going on or how much Google has made from the Silver Golub ad. Google's ad rate is based on how many computer users click on the ad, which appears when certain keywords -- also known as adwords -- are typed into the search engine.
Stratton said his firm does no direct-to-consumer advertising because it receives 95 percent of its business from law firm referrals. "We're going to sue Google," said Stratton, "and we're going to ask the Connecticut Bar Association for an ethics opinion."
‘HUNDREDS OF KEYWORDS'
When Richard Silver, of Silver Golub, was initially contacted by a reporter on Wednesday, he said "this is the first I’ve heard of this." He said he would have to speak to a marketing company the firm retains. He declined to name that company.
In a later e-mail, Silver said that his firm had contacted the marketing company and "confirmed that, in fact, other law firms were listed amongst the hundreds of keywords. Our provider advised us at that time that it is customary to include names of other law firms in a Google Adwords campaign. However, I have instructed our provider to remove all references to any other law firms."
He added that “had any member of Stratton Faxon contacted our firm directly, we would have taken this action before now.”
Stratton, meanwhile, said he also found that doing a Google News search for the prominent Hartford, Conn., personal injury firm of RisCassi & Davis yielded an ad for the Silver Golub firm, even when there were no news items about RisCassi & Davis. Attorney James D. Bartolini, at RisCassi & Davis, said the firm’s partners were surprised to hear that.
"We had known nothing about this fact that if you were to punch up RisCassi & Davis you’re sent to Silver, Golub & Teitell,” Bartolini said. “We’re all scratching our heads, trying to figure out, how did it happen? Why did it happen? We don't know."
He said he would "be shocked if Silver, Golub & Teitell thought that they were buying 'RisCassi & Davis.' Knowing the lawyers at Silver, Golub & Teitell, I can't imagine they would seek to buy the name of RisCassi & Davis, or any other law firm."
If the adword purchase was made by a marketing company, Bartolini said, "the customer should have a right to know what they’re buying."