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December 21, 2003

Should Web Lawyers Use Content-Targeted Ads?

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 6:59 pm

no solit neg ?


A weblogging attorney recently asked me if I had an opinion on the ethical aspects of a lawyer signing up for the Google AdSense™ program.  I didn’t know what it was, much less have an opinion on it. [Remember, most of my legal ethics knowledge is gained on a “need to know” basis.]  At least one weblogger has praised AdSense highly for its ability to generate income.  For a sample, check out this legal news site to see the kind of ads that appear on its Advertising Law page.  Click here for Google’s Case Study page.

  • You can insert your weblog URL here on Anders Jacobsen‘s Blog to see the kind of ads your site would generate using AdSense. [many thanks to Mike O’Sullivan for this most helpful clue]

After doing some research and a bit of thinking, I only have more questions, and I hope my visitors will help figure out some answers. 


Here’s how Google describes its AdSense program:

Google AdSense is a fast and easy way for website publishers of all sizes to display relevant, text-based, unobtrusive Google AdWords™ ads on their website’s content pages and earn money. Because the ads are related to what your users are looking for on your site, you’ll finally have a way to both monetize and enhance your content pages.  The program is free, and Google pays you for clicks on the AdWords ads on your site.

And, here’s part of its explanation on how it targets ads: 

Simply put, we provide you with AdSense HTML ad code to place on the web pages on which you want to display AdWords ads. Then, we take care of the rest by leveraging award-winning and proprietary Google search and page-ranking technologies to deliver relevant AdWords ads to those content pages.

Google’s folk make sure the ads are “Family-Safe,” and the website owner can filter the ads displayed on a site by creating a “filter list of websites whose ads you’d like to restrict from showing on your site.”   However, Google advises the potential filterer to remember “that filtering sites may decrease the number of ads that can appear on your pages as well as decrease your potential earnings.”  Also, note that while Google’s  geotargeting “makes the ads even more relevant for visitors to your site,” it means “that you may not see all of the ads that can be served to your pages.”

My quick research discovered no code, rule, or guidelines on point, but there might be some out there.  [There appear to be no relevant provisions or policiies in the Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers (ABA elawyering Task Force, feb. 2003).]   Advertising codes concerned with a firm advertising its own legal services don’t seem helpful.  We probably can safely say that there’s no fee-splitting problem, since the payment is not connected to a successful sale, only to clicking on the link. 

Yet, at least two issues seem to remain (especially because there is no practical way for even a conscientious lawyer to filter out all potentially troublesome ads).  The lawyer weblogger, or the firm using such programs on a site, might be seen as:

  • aiding in the unauthorized practice of law if, e.g., ads appear from lawyers practicing outside their jurisdictions, or from non-lawyers offering services that might be deemed “the practice of law” in a relevant licensing jurisdiction; [e.g., what kind of ads would a site that focuses on Bankruptcy Law or Divorce Law generate?] or 
  • subjecting visitors to, and/or appearing to endorse, misleading advertisements or shoddy products/services, in order to create income.  (This assumes that Google won’t let you put any “we don’t necessarily endorse” disclaimers near the ads). 

If there are problems with a lawyer using a content-targeted program ad program, such as AdSense , on a “legal content” weblog, I have the feeling they would exist even if the weblog were not linked to the lawyer’s practice site (because the webloggist is surely attracting readers due to her or his legal expertise in the subject area), but a link to a law firm site seems to increase the potential problem.  Of course, weblogs that are not law-related, but merely happen to be run by a lawyer shouldn’t be a problem (unless, perhaps, the non-legal weblog links to the website of the attorney’s law firm). 


Does it help our analysis to analogize this to a law office having income-generating advertising space in its waiting room that is put there by an ad broker?  Is it any different from having magazines with ads in the waiting area?   The income-generating purpose might create the responsibility for the law firm to police what was being hawked.


Even if there is no potential ethical problem, I wonder if such a program is likely to produce sufficient income to warrant its use on a weblawg.   (The Google intro page mentions special services for sites with 20 million page hits a month or more.)  And, given the notion that weblogs are great as reputation builders for lawyers, are such ads likely to fit into the imagine being sought by the weblawyer?  Also, just how does Google guard against the chummy community of webloggers generating fraudulent clicks by clicking on eachother’s ads to generate some income?  [Oh, yeah, lawyers wouldn’t do that.]


Even more than usual, your comments and insights, experience or anecdotes are requested and even solicited.

Updates:  In between holiday busyness, I’ll be posting comments received by me directly from various weblawgers, as well as noting postings on the topic.

  • (12-21-03) Steve Minor of the SW Va Law Blog (with tongue in cheek, I think), says Perhaps there could be some theory of liability for the endorsement of something defective – like suing Ted Williams for getting a bad fly rod from Sears.”  I’m sure he meant Ted’s estate. 

  • (12-22-03) CorpLawBlog‘s Mike O’Sulllivan says its a fascinating technology, but

     “I doubt they pay much, they’ll cheapen my site’s
    appearance and I suspect the ads on my site will be
    from lawyers advertising for clients to sue my

  • (12-22-03) Carolyn Elefant of left a very insightful, “practical” comment, here.
  • (12-23-03) It’s very difficult to disagree with anything Jerry Lawson says today in an insightful posting at NetLawBlog — basically (my summary), the ads are tacky, won’t bring in much money, and shouldn’t be unethical unless we incorrectly consider consumers to be ignorant.  Check it out.  
  • (12-23-03) Also, thanks to Denise Howell at Baby & Baggage for pointing her readers in this direction, noting aptly that the new technology “gives the age-old ethical question of lawyer advertising a digital era/third party twist.”
  • (12-23-03) Marcia Oddi of the (much more than) Indiana Law Blog, saw the e&h Holiday Greeting above, and threatens to get out her old Italian baby pictures (goat cart and all); as to the ads, she says:

    “Now that I’ve seen samples of the ads, I realize I have seen them on other sites and have thought they were placed there by the site owner! So others might have the same impression if such ads were placed on my site. And why wouldn’t they? They might think I am in business with this “Trace anyone” firm.


    “And what would I get out of all this? A few pennies a click. Clearly not worth it for a trade of making one’s site look cheap and confusing people. If it paid more would I consider it? Not likely it would, and not likely I would.”

  • (12-23-03) Kevin J. Heller of Law Tech Advisor listed this post in his Possible Items of Interest, asking “what do you think?”  Kevin’s site has some Google ads — what do you think of them?
  • (12-24-03) the Stark County Law Library Blawg pointed over to this article, and supplied their visitors with our updates on this topic
  • (12-25-03) B. Janell Grenier of BenefitsBlog was clearly waiting up for Santa when she posted a pointer (at 12:33 A.M.) to this ongoing discussion, with the reminder that “It is interesting to note that many lawyers who sign up for blawgs using the Blogger tool, automatically have these ads inserted on their blawg until they pay the yearly fee.”
  • (12-29-03) Marty Schwimmer of the Trademark Blog posted today on the Limitations to Keyword Targeted Advertising, giving an example published in today’s NY Times (at C-6): “One embarrassing example was the placement of ads by luggage stores on a Web page for a news article about a murderer who carried away his victims in a suitcase.”  Marty also sent these comments to add to our discussion:

“If I were to run context-sensitive ads, my website would be overrun by the ads that target TRADEMARK – Some ads might be those of authentic competitors, some by trademark filing ‘mills’ that might poorly reflect on my practice, and some ads by ‘document preparation’ firms that offer trademark searching and filing services (the provision of which services might constitute the unlicensed practice of law).

“So I don’t think I’ll be running context-sensitive ads any time soon.”

  •  (12-30-03) Kevin J. Heller of Law Tech Advisor says he’s been following the comments on this posting with interest.  He also reminds his readers that his site includes the following Disclaimer: “The author does not endorse or recommend any of the products or services for which advertisements may be displayed on this site by Blogads, Blogger, Google or Skoobie.”  (Ed. Note from an ex-FTC lawyer: The Disclaimer is at the very bottom of a long home page, well below the last batch of ads, in difficult to read — for us oldtimers, at least — grey-on-dark-blue.)



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