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Wisconsin firms battle over Google searching

When searching for an attorney online, it’s a natural assumption that typing in the name of a particular practitioner will result in that person appearing at the top of the list.

So when attorney Jeffrey R. Zirgibel heard that prominent personal injury firm Cannon & Dunphy SC had allegedly bought the keywords of competitor Habush Habush & Rottier, he did a Google search.

“We checked after that to make sure they were not coming up in front of us,” said Zirgibel, of personal injury firm Pasternak & Zirgibel SC.

Last week, Habush filed suit (PDF) against Cannon & Dunphy, alleging that when the Brookfield-based firm paid for the keywords “Habush” and “Rottier,” it in effect hijacked the names and reputation of Habush attorneys.

Until a day after the suit was filed, anyone who typed in the names Habush or Rottier on the popular search engine Google would see the home site for Cannon & Dunphy appear first.
According to the Associated Press, Cannon has acknowledged paying for the keywords but denied any wrongdoing, saying it was following a legal business strategy.

According to the suit, Habush is seeking injunctive relief and attorney fees.
How serious?

Legal consultant Eileen Wertenberger wonders “how much of this is going on other places.”

She noted that paying a search engine for keywords is a common business practice. A search engine like Google places ads based in part on users’ clicking patterns and on the advertiser’s prepaid budget for a certain number of views.

Milwaukee personal injury attorney Paul J. Scoptur said that his firm, Aiken & Scoptur SC, had budgeted for “pay-per-click” searches of keywords in the past.

Given the competitive nature of personal injury practice, Scoptur said it makes a difference if a firm isn’t listed at or near the top when someone types in partner names.

“If someone is looking for me, I’d hope I’d be near the top of the list,” he said. “If you can’t have your own name, what can you have?”

Wertenberger agreed.

“[Personal injury] is the most competitive area online,” she said.

In the suit, Habush claims that Cannon violated the Wisconsin privacy law – Wis. Stat. 995.50(2)(b) (PDF) – which states that someone’s name or likeness cannot be used for advertising purposes without written consent from the individual.

The suit states that Cannon’s use of “Habush” and “Rottier” is “an intentional and illegal effort to trade upon the hard earned names, personal reputations and good will” established by Habush.

Zirgibel suggested that Habush’s interpretation of the state’s privacy statute might be right on.

He said that whether a firm appears first or fifth in a search probably isn’t a big deal, especially if someone is looking for a specific attorney. But if anyone can purchase keywords like “Habush” or “Rottier” a firm could be pushed several pages back in the search.

“The real concern is if Google is selling 8 to 10 sponsored links per page,” he said. “I certainly understand Bob Habush’s concern if someone searched his name and it’s not on the first page.”

Wertenberger suggested that this may not be a huge problem, because if someone is looking for specific attorneys and doesn’t find them, the person may tweak his or her search.

But Scoptur believes there is value in being at or near the top of the list.

“I think it makes a difference, especially if there are 61,000 results and you know someone isn’t going through them all to find you,” he said.

Wertenberger said given that both firms are established in Wisconsin, the situation likely didn’t have a significant impact on business for the Habush firm, but it is still “a slap.”

It’s “definitely taboo,” she said. “You can’t have someone else’s firm coming up and a person thinking they are going to the correct law firm. I’m not sure how many people were swayed … but it’s just incredible gall.”

Portions of this story came from the Associated Press

2 comments

  1. “According to the Associated Press, Cannon has acknowledged paying for the keywords but denied any wrongdoing, saying it was following a legal business strategy.” A prime example of where “legal” is not synonymous with “ethical.”

  2. A battle between two fat-cat law firms. Both run TV ads that make you want to vomit. Indeed apparently C & D can’t hack it using their own name so they go and use someone else’s to attract clients. That’s about as pathetic as it gets. Is it legal legal? Perhaps. Honorable? Definitely not.

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