Search Terms, Domain Names, and Ethical Legal Advertising
It is somewhat common for various parties including businesses to purchase domain names that include the names of other businesses and use that domain name/website to redirect visitors to that misleading website somewhere else. For example, imagine wanting to shop at “Walmart.com” but clicking on a link like “Walmart-Store.com.” In this hypothetical scenario, clicking “Walmart-Store.com” might redirect you to a website for another big box store like Target although the domain name appears to be representing Walmart. This could also apply to misspellings of domain names such as “Walmartt.com” where the user might be redirected to a website they did not intend to visit.
The New Jersey Committee on Professional Ethics for Lawyers recently issued an opinion regarding whether attorneys can do something similar. Is it ethical for Attorney A to purchase a website name that appears to be of a competitor (Attorney B) and have that link redirect the user to Attorney A’s own website? The Ethics Committee determined that this conduct was unethical as it ran afoul of Rule 8.4, which forbids lawyers from engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” For Attorney A to create or use a website URL that appears to be representing Attorney B and use it to divert a user to Attorney A’s website would be a purposeful attempt to deceive the user who is searching for Attorney B.
However, the Ethics Committee did state that attorneys may purchase keywords, including a competitor’s name, in a search engine. For example, Attorney A would be permitted to purchase Attorney B’s name as a keyword for Google searches (such keywords came be purchased multiple times by multiple businesses). This would allow Attorney A’s website to appear as a sponsored result on Google when a user searches for Attorney B’s name. Unlike having a deceiving website URL which would redirect the user somewhere else, the Ethics Committee stated that purchasing search terms would not be a violation of the ethical rules since the user would simply see Attorney A’s website displayed with the other search results related to Attorney B. This would not be deceitful or misleading as the user can still choose whichever website they want.
While purchasing domain names that redirect users or buying search terms is not unlawful, this opinion is an example of how lawyers are held to higher standards and must take care to ensure advertising efforts are ethical.
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