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Newark, N.J.-Time was when the average citizen looking for a lawyer would thumb through the Yellow Pages, where smart lawyers with the wherewithal would place large display ads to distinguish themselves from the strict alphabetical listings. Now, the fastest way to find a lawyer is to use an Internet search engine, and the new challenge for enterprising attorneys is how to get their names to the top of the 5.76 million spewed back when a user queries for, say, “New Jersey divorce lawyers.” The answer is sponsored links: paying Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. or other search engines for prominent placement when a user types in a specific term. It’s an auctionlike system, whereby the most aggressive advertisers can claw their way to the top. The automated-auction system was developed in the late 1990s by a company called Overture, sold to Yahoo in 2003. Since then, sponsored links have become the fastest-growing segment of Internet advertising, with $2.6 billion in revenue last year, according to Internet analyst Jupiter Research. Revenue is predicted to reach $5.5 billion by 2009. They have become popular marketing tools for small law firms, particularly in areas such as bankruptcy, matrimonial and immigration law, where lawyers live or die on a steady stream of new business. When a would-be client types in a term like “Jersey City immigration lawyer,” a brief promotional blurb and link to the lawyer’s Web site appears at the top of the screen or next to results of unpaid searches. The lawyer is charged only if the user clicks on the firm’s link. It’s an evolving marketplace that constantly recalculates the cost per click and the relative prominence of each ad. Still, adherents say sponsored links are cheaper and more flexible than that low-tech standby, the phone book. “It’s become our primary mode of advertising,” said Glenn Reiser, whose three-lawyer Hackensack, N.J., firm, LoFaro & Reiser, started doing sponsored links a year and a half ago. “We’re definitely having our best year ever and I have to attribute it to our search engine referrals.” Reiser said that 75% of new clients came through sponsored searches of its practice areas-bankruptcy, criminal defense, drunken driving defense, estate planning, real estate and litigation. It all begins with selecting the right search terms. For example, “matrimonial lawyer” gets fewer hits than a conversational term like “divorce lawyer.” Advertisers can try new terms or delete old ones at any time, and law firms usually hedge their bets with a list of permutations like “defense lawyer” and “defense attorney” and “criminal lawyer” and “criminal attorney.” While other search engines such as Lycos and Ask Jeeves offer pay-per-click advertising, Google and Yahoo dominate the field at 52% and 25%, respectively, according to Web Side Story, an e-commerce analyst company. Bidding for clicks Setting up a sponsored search takes only a few minutes. Special pages on the search engines’ Web sites offer animated tutorials for novices and accept payment by credit card. But then there follows an arcane and at times brutish auctionlike system that decides each advertiser’s position on the list of results, and the related financial consequences. When setting up a sponsored search, the advertising lawyer sets a maximum cost-per-click and a maximum daily cost he or she is willing to pay. If the limit is exceeded, the lawyer’s link stops appearing until the next day, so he or she won’t get an unexpectedly large bill in the event of a rush of clicks. If, however, bidding by other advertisers on a particular search term surges, a lawyer might suddenly find his or her search campaign rendered irrelevant when his link falls from first to 10th on the list seen by users. “You’re in competition with other businesses who want to be visible to people using those keywords. If you’re the low bidder, your ad will appear way down on the page,” said Brad Hill of Monmouth Junction, N.J., the author of Building Your Business with Google for Dummies. Price-per-click provides a barometer of lawyers’ views of the relative worth of various types of cases. In this regard, Yahoo is more open than Google about costs. While Google discloses average cost-per-click rates to advertisers who have registered, anyone can see Yahoo’s maximum cost-per-click rates and links to the advertisers offering those sums at www.overture.com.

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