Is the North Carolina Bar Killing Google’s Local Service Ads?

The North Carolina Bar has Google’s new ad unit – the Local Service Ad squarely in their sites, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.  I’m not suggesting this is the right move, just that I was expecting a reaction earlier (and probably from Florida).

The Bar’s beef?  The routing and recording of the inbound phone calls to attorneys.  A quick overview – these ad units are monetized via a  pay per lead approach and deliver those leads via a  phone call to the law firm.  Google routes those calls through their own technology which records them, transcribes them and then analyzes them to ensure the inbound call was actually a lead instead of spam – a FindLaw SEO salesman for example. This ensures the quality of those leads for which the firm is pay each time remains high. In addition, law firms can dispute the quality of individual leads and apply for a refund. The recordings help Google with this one off refund requests.

Yes – Google is recording these calls and there is, of course, a notification to consumers buried somewhere within Google’s terms of service.  But, let’s be honest, most of you reading this didn’t know that and it is certain that the vast majority of consumers don’t either.  Enter the NC State Bar which in their opinion stated:

“A third party’s recording and retention of these conversations, as well as its access to and potential disclosure of conversations between consumer and lawyer, raise consumer protection concerns and heighten the need for clear and full communication.”

Now, I don’t really think Google has any interest in getting into the business of sharing these conversations with third parties (as posited by the issue-spotting NC Bar). Nor do I genuinely think most consumers would be aghast at Google’s practices here. Having said that, these notifications buried deep in a never-read terms of service is a very far cry from “this call is being recorded for quality and training purposes” that we’ve become oh so accustomed to. And it was only a matter of time before issue-spotting Bar regulators took this predictable step.  Gyi waxes poetic on the general overreaching approaches Bar’s have towards technology in Lunch Hour Legal Marketing’s July 14th Podcast.

Now, it’s important to note that Local Service Ads, are not a new phenomenon, just new to the legal industry.  They first rolled out to Locksmiths and Plumbers way back in 2016 and have been expanding industries ever since.  This means there’s years and years of recorded LSAs for hundreds of thousands of companies and they haven’t been shut down on these concerns before.  And yes, legal is different, but the law isn’t.  The peeps in Mountainview are pretty smart and they clearly spent a lot of time studying and engaging the legal market at the state regulatory level before launching LSAs. I find it unlikely they didn’t anticipate this obvious eventuality.  But, if the NC Bar persists (nevertheless)… how many lawyers really want to risk bar discipline to protect Google’s LSA pricing framework? (But if you do… find me; it’s a linkbuilding Bonanza and I love lawsuits for linkbuilding).

Hat Tip: Jason (you know who you are) and David Donovan from the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly.