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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 Google one, 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 or Yahoo or other Web search engines for prominent placement when a user types in a specific term. It’s an auction-like 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,” says Glenn Reiser, whose three-lawyer Hackensack 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 says that 75 percent 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 percent and 25 percent 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 auction-like 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,” says Brad Hill of Monmouth Junction, 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. Last week Google quoted an average cost-per-click rate of $24.26 for the search term “New Jersey auto accident lawyer,” while “New Jersey immigration lawyer” had an average cost of $4.71. On Yahoo, the maximum per-click bid last week on “New Jersey auto accident lawyer” was $16; the bidder was a 50-state portal, resource4accidents.com. Rahway’s Tobin, Koster, Oleckna, Reitman, Greenstein & Konray was the top bidder on Yahoo for the term “New Jersey dog bite lawyer,” submitting a maximum bid of $15. Meanwhile, the competition for “New Jersey sexual harassment lawyer” was far less intense, with a nationwide portal offering the top maximum bid of $1.50 per click. Yahoo and Google have different methods for deciding an advertiser’s rank on a list of sponsored searches. Yahoo bases it on each advertiser’s maximum cost per click. Google bases it on the cost per click, the rate at which users click through that ad and what the company Web site describes cryptically as “other relevancy factors.” Thus, an advertiser who pays less per click but is frequently selected by users can appear before one that pays a higher rate but is less popular. “In Google, success breeds success. If for whatever reason your ad enjoys success, Google will raise your ad on the page,” author Hill says. Lawyers who have used both search engines say Yahoo’s interfaces are more user-friendly than Google’s, since the advertiser gets regular e-mail reports of activity on the searches while Google users must generate their own reports. On the other hand, Google can ascertain the geographic location of an Internet user from the computer’s IP address, says Hill. So Google’s system can provide geographic matches between sponsored search advertisers and users who do not include a geographic term in their search. Yahoo has no such geographic capabilities, and a user who does not type in the name of a state or city will get results from the entire country. MARKET-DRIVEN PRICES Lawyers using sponsored searches report that they usually don’t pay more than $5 per search and are satisfied with the results. But they fear that prices will rise as more lawyers try pay-per-click marketing. In an August 2004 report, Jupiter Research said that “a sharp increase in the average cost-per-click is the primary driver of this market, with incremental growth in the number of searches.” And on April 8, 2004, The Wall Street Journal reported that the plaintiffs’ asbestos bar was bidding $90 or more for each search of the term “mesothelioma,” a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. (The bidding war for those cases has since cooled off, if last week’s bids in the $30 range for mesothelioma searches are an indication.) Yahoo spokeswoman Gaude Paez says that even if prices increase, sponsored searches will remain a good value because they charge only for exposure to intended users, unlike other forms of advertising. “When someone types in ‘lawyer New Jersey,’ you can be fairly sure they’re looking for a lawyer in New Jersey,” Paez says. Dramatic cost increases are still the exception rather than the rule, adds Kevin O’Keefe, a Bainbridge Island, Wash., lawyer who runs a Web log on online legal marketing, LexBlog. “By and large, I think there’s some incredibly cheap buys that lawyers can avail themselves of,” says O’Keefe. ‘CLICK FRAUD’ Of course, lawyers have no way of knowing whether clicks they are billed for are by people genuinely looking for their services. Some advertisers claim to be victims of click fraud, in which competitors or robotic software generate a large number of clicks. Hackensack lawyer Reiser admits he has no way of knowing whether his bills are inflated by fraudulent clicks but shrugs that off as a cost of doing business. Hill, the author, says the magnitude of click fraud is widely debated. He says it’s hard for advertisers to assess the extent of fraud but they should remember that not everyone who looks at a particular Web site will end up a customer of that firm. Google has technology to detect fraud quickly, and the company has prosecuted violators, says Barry Schnitt, a company spokesman. Click fraud “has not been a material issue for Google and we are managing it well,” he adds.

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