Fuck Google

So let me start with… this isn’t my post. It was sent to me in response to some of the recent posts I’ve made about how Google has evolved both their PPC and more recently, their LSA tactics to deliberately squeeze more money out of advertisers without adding any more value and obfuscated those moves by limiting visibility into reporting.  It’s a rage post that someone banged out and then (wisely?) decided not to post fearing retribution.  I know the guy who wrote it, very well. We’ve spent countless hours over the years talking digital marketing and he and I both share a common path from Google Advocate to Apologist to… well, wherever we are now.  He’s working in legal for the better part of a decade and currently is in-house at a multi-state PI firm overseeing a large, sophisticated online and offline marketing campaign.

And if you aren’t currently furious at Google… have a read because your aren’t really paying attention…

As a marketer, advertiser, and longtime Google apologist, it pains me to say this, but fuck Google. 

Over the past year it’s become clear that Google doesn’t care about individual businesses advertising on their platform, and it’s increasingly looking like they barely care about providing decent results for people researching businesses in their city.

When Google quietly jettisoned “Don’t be Evil” back in 2018 that seemed like a bad sign. “Don’t be evil” feels like the kind of mantra that, once stated, can’t be removed without raising some eyebrows. It’s like having a sign next to your pet saying, “this dog doesn’t bite.” Once people notice the sign is gone it’s not unreasonable to wonder what prompted the removal. But whatever, Google still encouraged employees to, “do the right thing,” and barreled forward on their path to total internet domination. 

With Google’s 80% market share necessitating a strong presence for any business looking to reach potential clients online, the relationship between local businesses and Google has always been somewhat contentious. It’s not surprising that many business owners have been frustrated with everything from shakeups in rankings, shady (but effective) tactics in local search, and a fallacious (but eerily persistent) impression that spending more in PPC increases prominence in organic search results. 

I’ve frequently discounted most of these concerns with the following defenses of Google:

  1. Google is doing the best they can. – Policing and monitoring the internet is a herculean and losing task. Even if you’re making a legitimate effort it’s an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. However, it’s in Google’s best interest to decipher what users are searching for and deliver a strong selection set for each query.
  2. Google relies on searchers finding the best result possible. – My premise has been that by ensuring high quality results for users, Google can maintain their market position as long as possible. If results stop being useful, seeking out competing alternatives becomes more likely. As a result, it benefits Google to develop and continuously refine some criteria of what constitutes a good business and place those companies more prominently in front of potential customers.
  3. Google can’t be expected to care about any individual business and devotes focus to entire industries. – Evaluating each individual business is impossible, but having industry specific criteria is slightly more manageable. Google can’t reasonably assess every business in a category, but they can define what’s important to potential customers. If your business isn’t showing up for a specific intent-based search, my Google sided explanation would be that it’s because you’re not what Google thinks that searcher is looking for. It’s not nefarious, it’s just Google looking at a much bigger picture than just your business.

Enter Local Service Ads and a whole new corrupt ecosystem. 

 Unlike the PPC days where ads were ads and a reasonable percentage of searchers understood the distinction, Local Service Ads have increasingly (and I’d argue deliberately) muddied the waters. 

Having already optimized PPC ads to mitigate ad blindness, Google has been finding new and creative ways to effectively monetize searches with high intent. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, especially when it provides businesses with a way to compete for the attention of a potential customer in the market for their services. 

Local Service Ads were launched in 2015, but didn’t really take off until 2018-2019 as industry categories continued to expand. These ads, unlike traditional PPC, imparted a soft-endorsement from Google by listing the advertised business as “Google Screened” and bestowing them with a snazzy checkmark. 

The original intent seemed to be sound. The idea of “Google Screened” was presented as a way to ensure searchers looking to hire a local business, specifically in industries where a contractor would be visiting their home (think plumbers, locksmiths, electricians, etc.), could know with certainty that anyone from that business performing house calls had undergone a background check and was “Google Screened.”

Over time, categories expanded and the product morphed into a pay-per-call version of Google Ads, where high intent searches frequently delivered Local Service Ads at the top of the results and approximately 1 in 3 searchers engaged with LSAs instead of the local map pack or traditional organic results. With LSAs becoming one of the most effective ways for local businesses to get in front of potential customers, competition quickly increased. 

Fast forward to 2024 and businesses are more reliant than ever on utilizing some form of Google advertising to reach potential clients. Shockingly, as more businesses rely on their platform, Google’s customer support has dropped to an “all-time low.”

Google has officially turned into Comcast from a decade ago. Congratulations!

 

All of this would be annoying for local advertisers if it wasn’t for Google’s most recent, and most insidious, update to their Local Service Ads platform: the addition of “Branded Local Service Ads.” 

A few months ago, Google added a “Direct Business Search” feature within each LSA account. This setting defaulted to “on”, and was pitched as a way to, “Let Local Services Ads highlight your business in results when someone searches for your brand or business directly.” 

As someone that has defended the value of bidding on your own brand in the PPC space, this felt like an obnoxious extension of that same idea. But the devil is in the details, and the total lack of transparency surrounding what is and is not a branded search has been frustrating at best and deliberately misleading at worst. 

Given Google’s dominance in the search space, the only way to steer clear of the auction based, client-to-the-highest-bidder model has been to aggressively brand your business using other forms of advertising. If people are searching for your business by name, Google has historically showed your result prominently. As it should. 

Now, with the implementation of LSAs for branded searches, Google is attempting to squeeze more revenue from local businesses while providing no benefit to the consumer. It’s hard to defend a duplicate listing placed directly above a business’ organic listing as having any real value to the searcher. 

Making things worse, there is zero transparency provided when someone does call from your “direct search” LSA ad. Despite a “job type” tag built into the dashboard, Google does nothing to denote what calls are from branded searches vs. category specific searches. This makes it impossible to separate acquisition costs like you would with a traditional PPC campaign and artificially lowers your acquisition cost in the aggregate. After all, most companies are better at converting people who already know they want to work with them than the ones who are shopping for the best fit. 

Additionally, because there’s no insight into the cost for any given call, you have absolutely no idea what Google is charging you to place your own ad atop your own business that you’ve already spent money branding to the general public. Obviously, you can turn the ads off and refuse to participate in Google’s shameless cash grab. But, there’s no guarantee Google won’t show ads from competing businesses within your own branded searches. Barry Schwartz posted about Google showing competitor ads within individual GBP listings back in March. Weeks earlier, Joy Hawkins of Sterling Sky had posted about the same issue occurring for the branded search “A1 Garage Door Service.” A Google Ads Liaison Officer responded to the post, saying, “This is a bug (and it was thought to be a non-brand query) – a fix is underway.” Yes, accidents happen. But preventable accidents occurring solely because of a greedy and unnecessary product rollout are significantly less forgivable than a well-intentioned mistake. Even if this bug has indeed been fixed for certain branded terms, it’s going to remain fuzzy for brand specific searches in industries where the business name often contains the service category.

In a vacuum, the rollout of this ad type would be annoying. Coupled with Google’s push toward trusting their algorithm, letting them adjust your bidding strategy to “maximize conversions”, removing any clarity around what you’re paying for individual lead types, and eliminating any meaningful level of customer service for businesses spending well into six-figures per month, it’s hard not to think this is at least evil adjacent. 

Sure, Google could “do the right thing” and sacrifice some potential revenue by not plowing ahead with a redundant ad type that confuses searchers while bilking businesses in a way that deliberately obfuscates the price being paid. However, it’s increasingly feeling like Google’s idea of doing the right thing means holding onto their massive profit margins regardless of how that money is acquired. 

With over 80% of the global search market, Google knows you need them a lot more than they need you. It’s not going to get better, and even though I’d already resigned myself a while ago that we were all racing to a break even for digital leads while Google laughingly lined their pockets; paying a premium for people who already want to call to do so via a duplicative “Google Screened” button was a surprisingly obnoxious twist. 

Each greedy new feature Google rolls out adds to the prisoner’s dilemma facing online advertisers. We all know it’s an unwinnable game, and there are way too many business owners for collaborative defiance. But, the fact that there’s no other game we can play should scare all of us.

So, quietly and with no byline, I’ll say again, fuck Google! Fuck them so much I’m turning off this one feature and begrudgingly continuing all other Google Ads. They’re going to feel this one when their next earnings report comes out! 

 

LSA now means Lets Screw Attorneys

Google’s Local Service Ads are now enabling a feature to let the end user message multiple law firms. See the image to the right “Message multiple” for an example. Google now looks exactly like the aggressive and often anonymized lead generation companies who sell single leads to multiple firms.  The catch here is that due to the opacity in reporting in LSAs… the law firm has NO idea not only how many other firms received the lead, but also no idea on how much they are paying per lead. And if history repeats itself (see below), it’s highly likely that law firms are paying very similar amounts for the phone call that goes exclusively to their law firm as they are, for a message lead that gets simultaneously submitted to three competitors in the same market.

Hat tip to Josh Hodges for the heads up on this.   

Some Recent History of Google’s LSA money grab….

On February 12th of this year, Google rolled out (and automatically opted all advertisers in) a product called Direct Business Search. Listeners of the Lunch Hour Legal Marketing Pod will know that I’ve been highly skeptical of them because of Google’s opacity in data on LSA performance – put differently, PPC rates for branded campaigns (“Smith and Jones Law Firm”) run (across our client base) $3.41 per click, compared to non branded campaigns (“car accident lawyer Cleveland”) which are much more expensive.  Because Google offers no granularity on the reporting; it’s very difficult to hone in on what Google is charging for those branded queries.  We’ve done some very blunt analysis on this, and in conjunction with some internal law firm studies have come to the conclusion, it’s about $150-$200 for branded terms – a 50x increase on what you’d pay in PPC. As such we’ve opted clients out of these. (Now the counterpoint, which Gyi raises in the latest LHLM podcast is… does opting out of branded get you kicked out of the non-branded… another “what if” that’s impossible to answer without more granular data.) If you want to listen to the full discussion on the pod – have a listen: Google Local Service Ads: To Brand or Not To Brand.

Squeezing the Legal Industry

Google’s pattern of behavior in conflating three very different types of advertising models (brand search, lead gen and direct response) ultimately leads to more law firms spending more money on a marketing channel that is deliberately designed to be economically inefficient. Note they did this in PPC as well – with close variance between branded terms and non branded ones – for example conflating “Morgan and Morgan” with “car accident lawyer”. This has increased the overall PPC spend w/o generating more clients for lawyers. Put differently: this change in LSAs is a reflection of Google finding more ways to squeeze more money out of law firms without providing incremental value.

What Should I Do About It?

Watch your economics carefully.  Any testing you’d like to do is going to be very blunt – i.e. turn off messaging for two weeks, then opt out of branded keywords for two weeks and then try to compare the economics (cost per consult, not cost per lead) across these very broad tests taken during different time periods. With Google’s refusing to provide any insight into what makes up your overall LSA spend, this is the only way to try to get a handle on how LSAs are performing for your firm.

How We Tripled Leads for a PI Firm in 12 Months

Let me not bury the lead: We cut 77% of the content on a law firm’s website and improved lead conversion rate by almost 3x.

I still hear law firm SEO agencies talking about content content content as the key to the SEO game.  And the reason we hear this, isn’t because it works at driving business… it’s because content is a very tangible deliverable agencies produce. And clients like tangible products, even when they don’t do anything.  What law firms like more, is increased business.

SEO Details

The law firm website’s pagecount ballooned to over 2K pages over a period of about 2 years. Now, this was a solid site, well built technical platform and a robust, localized backlink profile.  But while this content was legally and even locally relevant, it was of extremely low quality and the backlinks to those pages were clearly of extremely low value (read: SPAM). Further an in-depth audit showed little if any traffic to these pages. So following the data – Google thought the content was useless. Using that data, we removed about 1,600 pages of content from the site, leaving just over 450 remaining and cutting their absolute backlink count by about 25%.

The Result

The results provide a counterpoint to simplistic SEO expectations about content. Despite killing more than 3 out of every 4 pages, overall traffic to the site stayed within a +/- 10% of the benchmark starting quarter.  But the real insightful takeaway here is in their overall organic conversion rate – which tripled over a period of twelve months, from 2.4% to just under 7%.

The change in their conversion rate wasn’t driven by changes in UI (like adding form fills for example) and therefore the only explanation is a fundamental shift in the quality of traffic (i.e. the site is now attracting traffic that is dramatically more likely to contact the firm. Note this adjustment took almost 9 months to fully take effect and settle into a predictable pattern.

For more reading and examples on this, check out: When SEO Wins Create Fewer Clients.

Sloppy Code and Losing Clients to Competitors….

First things first… I don’t have a horse in this race and I didn’t even find the example (Hat tip: my good buddy, Gyi.)  But… it does serve as an example of just how easily poor code can really hurt your business. FWIW, Gyi and I covered this specific example during a recent Lunch Hour Legal Marketing Office Hours session.

I haven’t written a blog post in a long while, but this example has some very small, but important visual content that wasn’t going to come through well in any other medium. So here goes.  Check out the following image and see what’s wrong….

If look really closely at the URL in the bottom left hand of that image, you’ll notice that the click through on the call-to-action “no fee unless you win” goes to…. another law firm’s website (chicagolawyer.com).

And further, if you check out the actual page URL, it’s devernalaw.com/copy-of-home (not their actual homepage) and when I check out the actual homepage, the design is fundamentally different.

So Why Is a Law Firm Site Sending Prospects to a Competitor?

The cynic in me wants to believe this is an underhanded attempt by Staver (chicagolawyer.com) to steal business from a Personal Injury competitor. Maybe the site was hacked, maybe the ‘agency’ that built Deverna Law was a family member of Staver’s (and don’t believe that doesn’t happen). However, the firms are in different geographic markets. In reality, it just looks like the have a common agency, who when building Staver’s site started by doing the WordPress equivalent of a copy and paste of the Deverna site. In doing so, they unintentionally copied an earlier design iteration of the homepage that now links back to Daverna. It’s a lazy approach to building sites and because there clearly was limited, if any Q/A upon launch created this problem. (And FWIW, Gyi thinks this is more intentional than lazy… I’m just being generous here.)

How Can I Check My Own Site?

I don’t want to dismiss the nefariousness of some agencies in deliberately pulling tricks like this.  I’ve seen it happen numerous times – more often as a linkbuilding tactic than directly stealing clients (which would be grossly brazen). So it’s important to occasionally run a query on outbound links coming from your site, to see just what you may be unintentionally promoting. You can do this through a simple audit in numerous tools including: Outlinks in Screaming Frog, the Backlink Audit tool from SEMRush, or the Outgoing Links tool in aHrefs. Here’s an example of our own site’s outbounds on SEMRush:

Tony Colleluori Taught me to Love Lawyers

The first time I ever met Tony, he interrupted and upbraided me in front of about 400 lawyers at a New York Bar Association event.

I just learned from Jeena Belil’s Facebook post that Tony died and I write this hoping that one day his sons might come across this post. I don’t write blog posts that often anymore, but some stories just belong written down.  I’m going to share two Tony stories – they day we met and the last day I ever saw him.

So back to that NY Bar Association event back in 2008… I was the only marketing dude for a little known (at the time) start up called Avvo.  Our CEO, Mark Britton and I were on a charm offensive, introducing the concept of Internet-As-Marketing-Channel to lawyers through appearances at Bar Associations around the country. I had a talk about this new thing called SEO and in one of the slides I talked about the importance of Name Search.  The example I sited was a lawyer named Ashley Dupree Russell whose Avvo profile exploded after the New York Times identified Ashley Dupre – the woman involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal. My talk went something like this:

“…so, now you have traffic to this lawyer’s profile exploding, because her name is getting misidentified by Google as the hooker”

It was at this point that Tony stood up and castigated me in front of the audience:

“Stop!  Stop right now!  Don’t you ever call a woman a hooker.  That lady is someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s sister.  Don’t you ever dare disrespect a woman like that.”

I sheepishly stumbled through the rest of the talk; afterwards Tony approached me and Mark.  We ended up going out for lunch, along with Jeena and Andrea Cannavina, to a deli nearby and talked for hours about the web and lawyers. I remember asking him if there was anything we could do for him and he gave me a very sad answer: “You can’t do anything for me.  The only thing I really want is something no one can do.  Unless you have a cure for scleroderma.” It’s a horrible disease which his wife, Mary Rose was suffering from (and eventually succumbed to.) At the end of a long lunch, Tony offered to drive Mark and me to La Guardia in some oversized black American car. That day, in one instant, Tony taught me more about lawyers and the meaning of (many, but not all) lawyers and ultimately lead me to crafting the first of our Mockingbird’s 10 Commandments.

1. We Love Lawyers – Attorneys who represent individuals are the primary counterbalance to corporate malfeasance, the greedy insurance industry and the widespread abuse of police and political power. We are honored to play a small role in this system.

My second story is much more personal and fun.  Mockingbird’s VP of Ops, Robert Williams and I were headed to New York. Rob had never been east of the Mississippi and I wanted to give him the ultimate New York experience so I told Tony I’d be in town and I wanted to go out for an Italian meal.  We met Tony (and Andrea again) at some ridiculously Italian restaurant – our waiter was a heavily accented dude named Michaelangelo. Tony showed up late and took another 20 minutes to get to the back of the restaurant where we were seated b/c he had to stop and talk with half of the people in there. We quaffed overpriced wine and devoured plate after plate of impossibly good Italian food. After dinner, as we were leaving, the proprietor insisted on getting picture of us – we were joined by some lady who I believe was the owner’s wife and I have hopes that there’s a pic of Rob, Conrad, Andrea, Tony and this lady sitting on the wall in some amazing Italian restaurant. Many diners recognize Tony, but have no idea who the two Seattleites are. Tony regaled Rob and me with stories over lawyering and those times he took off his JD in pursuit of Justice. We talked about parenting and his boys who he adored and of course his wife, who I never got to meet. It’s around 11:30 and Tony insisted on taking Rob and me for a tour of Manhattan – b/c back in the day, he used to drive a cab and cabbies used to get paid to take tourists around on an unofficial tour.  So we piled into his oversized black Lincoln or Caddy and Tony narrated a tour of the city for Rob. We’re uptown when it hits Tony that the only way to finish the night is to have a pastrami sandwich and this downtown, famous 24 hour Jewish deli.  Now, I’ve just finished about half my weight in linguine vongole as we hurtle through Manhattan on a suspension that clearly needs to be replaced and I’m trying to imagine downing a pastrami sandwich, but Tony insists. We finally arrive and thank Yahweh it was some Jewish holiday and they were closed.

The picture accompanying this post is from that day in 2008 and thanks to Jeena for sharing it. Tony was New York the way you wanted New York to be… Italian, gruff, connected, bombastic yet entirely welcoming.  NYC is a little less NYC than it was last week.

When SEO Wins Create Fewer Clients

We recently reviewed two law firm’s reports showcasing Traffic and Leads that showcased two diametrically opposed Traffic/Lead patterns – one of which showcases a counter to the predictable (and excusable) assumption that more traffic = more business.

Law Firm A

This is a long standing client – showing long standing SEO growth and a corresponding growth in leads over time.  This is a volume, personal injury shop in an aggressive growth mode; our SEO strategy has successfully supported their office expansion over the past 3 years, both in Organic and Local SEO. This is very much what you would typically expect to see.. growing traffic, growing leads, growing firm.  Note the conversion rate (Leads:Traffic) stays roughly constantly at slightly above 1%.

But it doesn’t always work out that way….

Law Firm B

This firm is the exact opposite… organic traffic growth is actually leading to a decline overall in inbound Leads.  This firm is much less typical – they operate within a very very specific niche and their traffic:lead ratio is off-the-charts low (and trending lower). Put simply – due to their niche, their SEO strategy operates very very high up in the funnel – from a business perspective it takes tons of traffic to generate a small number of highly valuable leads.  This site has historically converted traffic into leads at a rate of 0.25% – much lower than Law Firm A’s more typical 1%.

So what’s going on here? This is a firm that wins at the highest level of the sales funnel – primarily informational site for research based searches that sometimes, eventually, perhaps, maybe a convert a small portion turn into actual customers. And we’ve been successfully optimizing the site for these high funnel research queries for years now. And then things changed…

The reversal in the total number of leads… that happened in conjunction with a Google Core Algo Update of March ’23.  While we’ve continued to improve the site’s overall traffic, absolute volume of leads has declined meaning their already low conversion rate has dropped by an additional 22% down to 0.20%.  We’ve now got three consecutive months of increased traffic corresponding to decreased Leads. If we were measuring our success on traffic, we’d be golden, but traffic doesn’t pay the bills. Time to readjust the site’s overall strategy – specifically it’s content strategy to realign with conversions.

Search Generative Experience for Lawyers – What We Know

From a marketing perspective, the real magic of AI generated content is not the efficient propogation of more and more legal content – but instead,  AI’s  potential to change the way people interact with search.  ChatGPT was a existential threat to Google, because of its potential to flip the consumers behavior from going to a search engine to find a pre-existing piece of content, to interacting with a computer to generate in real-time a 100% customized result for that individual.  The infinite long-tail.

Google’s Search Generative Experience, announced at Google.IO on May 10th is exactly that.  From my perspective this is the most radical change to search in more than a decade.  If it sticks (and I have no reason to think it won’t), SGE is a fifth marketing channel crowding the SERPS, with it’s own algorithms, nuances and competitive realities to compete in.  LSAs, the current darling sitting atop the SERPS will be, at best, pushed down, or disappear entire – note that in the beta we’ve played with LSAs have disappeared in the interface with SGE is present.  Organic listings will be further deprecated and zero click queries will explode, robbing traffic (although less so on conversions) from every single website.

Conclusions from the SGE Beta:

  • Google Business Profiles – From what we’ve seen, GBP is heavily integrated into SGE and do feature heavily in queries – the Local 3 pack in the traditional SERP is replaced by 5 results.  The interesting question (unanswered for now), is are these results driven from the Local algo, or is this an entirely new computation that just happens to use GBP profiles, albeit differently.
  • Google Ads will be incorporated directly into the SGE and you won’t (for now) be able to segment ads or even reporting for SGE vs non SGE campaigns.  This keeps more and more advertisers in the bidding ecosystem, which ultimately drives overall revenue higher for Google.
  • YMYL – exhortations from Google that SGE won’t show up for Your Money Your Life categories does clearly NOT apply to legal based on what we’ve seen.
  • Directories – the Large Language Models that drive AI generated content seem to rely heavily on Directories when assessing the quality of lawyers. Obvious example – Avvo Rating scores lawyers from 1-10, this is very easy for a LLM to “interpret” that the lawyer is quality. Thus, SGE may  actually be the savior of the legal marketing dinosaur that is legal directories.
  • Authorship – Google is going big on transparency in results; the 10 year old concept of authorship (i.e. using the digitally assessed reputation of the actual author as a ranking factor) may have never actually disappeared even when Google Plus died due to spam (see my article on rel=author spam here: FindLaw Selling Pre-SEO’d Websites). SGE results suggest their drivers use author reputation as a ranking factor.
  • Perspectives and About This – Google simultaneously launched two additional products that provide more transparency as to the actual results AND are focused on showcasing an array of opinions about issues. From their own words: “we’re going to be expanding the range of helpful information” I believe this is Google’s attempt to counteract criticisms of the echo chamber effect of search, in which current results are influenced by previous behavior, leading to self-reinforcing bubble of results.
https://youtu.be/gSS9KDtJzB0

Is Ngage’s Chat Selling Your Leads?

To not bury the lead (sorry for the pun): yes, Ngage is funneling leads who contacted your firm through their Chat product to other law firms through one of the Internet Brands lead buying products. It’s a combination of gross business practices, simplistic technology, a horrible user experience and creates very angry consumers and lawyers.

First Some History

In February of 2021, Ngage launched the beta of their Ngage Consumer Assistance product via an email they sent to clients with an attachment about the product (read details: NGage Consumer Assistance) and an invitation to opt in to their Beta program via a page here.  Key to that webpage is the phrase:

“There’s no commitment or obligation. If a feature comes along that you like, you can opt into it. If you don’t like the idea, you don’t have to.”

The bold is my emphasis.  The first email was followed up in September of 2021, presumably after low opt-in enthusiasm and/or the product coming out of “beta”, with another email about the product, and this is where things get gross:

We’re offering a new feature, Consumer Assistance, to reduce the time you spend responding to leads you don’t want.
Attached is a short infographic with updated terms we’ve put together so you can see how it works! In short, if a chat is not relevant to your firm, with this new feature, we will automatically no-fee it for you, and attempt to help the visitor by providing them with helpful general legal articles or connecting them with an attorney appropriate for their inquiry.
To better serve our clients and your website visitors, we will be deploying Consumer Assistance to all Ngage legal clients. If you’d like additional information on this feature or if this does not seem like a good fit for your firm, please let me know.
Again, the bold emphasis is mine.  There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with, they auto-enrolled their entire clientele into this program via a nondescript email.  Secondly, they are providing consideration (later this would increase to include a $10 payout, which raises all sorts of ethical legal concerns) for participation in it. Finally, there’s an extremely vague explanation of how it works, “if a chat is not relevant to your firm, we will automatically…” How exactly is “not relevant” automatically determined?
The actual implementation of the program descends further into an ethical and end-user quagmire.  From what I have been able to determine, the product tries to ascertain the prospect’s geographic location and practice area interest via either area code, (captured during chat), IP address, or through the chat itself. The problem is that it’s not good at doing so. (I did contact Ngage on three different occasions for clarification on how this works, but no one got back to me, so for now, you’ve got my conjecture on how it works bolstered by real life examples of their geolocation not working.) So for example, if my good buddy Gyi still has his 734 cell phone number from his glory days as Tom Brady’s 7th string understudy at the University of Michigan, but now lives in Chicago, and calls a law firm while visiting Las Vegas, NGage may determine that he’s “not relevant” to a Chicago lawyer. The program then automatically shoots Gyi’s contact information, collected during the Ngage chat, to multiple non-Chicago area lawyers who are enrolled in one of Internet Brand’s lead purchasing programs.  And those firms, aggressively follow up with Gyi.

Think it can’t get worse?

Ngage impersonates the law firm when communicating with the ultimate end client. The example in the image below (I was asked to block out all names from the law firm in question, as a condition for me sharing this as they are deeply concerned about the ethical ramifications of being auto-enrolled in this program) was sent to a brand new client of a law firm, ostensibly from that law firm.  And yes, if you dig a little, the actual email comes from @robot.zapier, but the From is the “Smith and Jones Law Firm” and it’s signed from the Intake Support Coordinator of the Legal Intake Division at the “Smith and Jones Law Firm”.  Again, I can’t stress this enough – law firms were auto-enrolled in this, have never seen these emails being sent on their behalf and aren’t involved in the evaluation of which matters which get forwarded.
So this is the logical conclusion of what can happen: prospect fills out Ngage chat – law firms signs prospect – due to the product not accurately geo-identifying the prospect, Ngage erroneously determines prospect is “not relevant” – Ngage impersonates the law firm and sends newly signed client an email ostensibly from the law firm declining the engagement – client’s personal contact info is forwarded to three out-of-state law firms – client gets bombarded by law firms who assiduously hit up client via email and aggressively automated texts – client, who already distrusts lawyers, is confused and furious – law firm loses client – client writes scathing Google review – Ngage profits.

But The Disclaimer…

When confronted with these concerns, NGage highlighted the fine-print disclaimer in their chat (below).
We respect your privacy. Your personal information will be supplied to the chosen business. If the chosen business is unable to provide you with the services you requested, we may provide your personal information to another business who can assist you. Those who will receive your information may contact you using modern phone equipment, which may include auto-dialers and text. Consent is not a condition for purchase or hire. The information disclosed in this conversation does not constitute or create a lawyer-client relationship.
But come on… if you are going to pull this, at least use the technology that works.
I’ve never been a big fan of Ngage:
  • Salespeople market chats as low “cost-per-lead”, when the chat is a conversion mechanism, not a marketing channel.
  • “Cost per” business model is outdated – there’s lots of fixed chat options out there.
  • Because Ngage is a conversion mechanism and installed on (most, if not all) pages, they can generate a ton of business intelligence data for the Internet Brands legal keiretsu (Avvo, Nolo, Martindale, Lawyers.com, Captora and others) about what is driving conversions for any given firm.  Data is power.

Now, I get what they are trying to do – arbitrage leads from lawyers who can’t use them. In theory it’s not a terrible concept, but the implementation of the grossly monikered Consumer Assistance Program and the way it was rolled out was deliberate – they knew lawyers would hate this and snuck it in via email. Furthermore, if a vendor is going to take it upon themselves to refer out leads, they had better be 100% infallible in identifying relevant vs. irrelevant leads; that’s just not the case here.

Finally, even if all of this worked perfectly, I’d argue Ngage clients should leverage those unqualified leads (by either practice area or geography) to generate their own referral revenue or at least leverage those leads to forge relationships instead of thinly monetizing them through an automated third party referral service.

NOTE: As a courtesy, I did share this with Ngage prior to publishing and received the following reply which does nothing to elucidate how their product works, how it was rolled out nor clarify any of the facts above.

Unfortunately Conrad Saam is completely misinformed. Ngage clients can find an accurate report of how consumer assistance works here or they can contact their Ngage account representative at any time and we are happy to help.

ALERT: Google Business Profile Suspensions

In general, agencies who rely on fear for their marketing annoy me, but this is a situation in which Google’s moves have massive ramifications, so I’m sharing our experiences here so hopefully you can avoid these problems.

Transcript:

So I need to give you an urgent and super important update about something that’s going on with Google. Do not under any circumstances, do not touch your Google My Business profile right now. Google is in a complete mess on this and they are suspending accounts like crazy. We recently had one of our clients that account suspended.

We just added a UTM parameter, to their click to link and boom. Suspended not great. And there’s a couple other people who are experiencing the same thing. , These are two people that I know in the agency world. Not neither of them are legal specific, but these are two of the best, Blake Denman.

Until Google my biz fixes their shit, it’s highly advisable to not edit a single thing in G gmb, one of our clients just had their listing suspended for suspicious activities along with Blake Demond. We have the amazing queen of local Joy Hawkin, hearing a lot of agencies report in increase in Google business profile suspensions in the last week.

 Jason Brown has commented on this as well, so the people who are in the know right now hands off on making any changes to your Google business profile. Because getting suspended or getting out of being suspended is a huge pain in the ass.