How Family Law Is Like Pornography

I got an e-mail from Google the other day.

Sadly, e-mails from Google have come to feel like certified letters from the Internal Revenue Service or the State Bar.

All three of them send me bad news from time to time.

This particular e-mail came with a subject line that read, “Google Advertising Policy Update – Disallowing Divorce in Interest-Based Advertising.”

“Disallowing” is rarely a good word to hear.

What the E-Mail Said

I’d quote it for you, but I suspect you’d find it as confusing as I did. Google, like the IRS and State Bar, has mastered complex, bureaucratic speak. I have no idea what it said.

That’s why I consulted with my pay-per-click advertising guru (my kid who does this professionally) and asked him. He spoke to Google a number of times and left with a sense of the coming changes. However, talking to Google usually doesn’t lead to black-and-white clarity about anything. That was the case this time as well.

What appears to be happening is that Google is adding “family law” to a list of topics designated as “sensitive categories.” That means that Google will restrict certain types of advertising for family law practices.

We’re being added to this list:

For the purposes of this policy, sensitive information includes:

  • interest or participation in adult activities (including alcohol, gambling, adult dating, pornography, etc.)
  • sexual behavior or orientation, such as sexual orientation inferred from a user’s visit to a particular website
  • racial or ethnic information, such as from sites or apps that collect affirmative racial or ethnic identification from visitors
  • political affiliation (other than the public registration information of United States voters), such as from sites or apps that solicit or store people’s affirmative political stances
  • trade union membership or affiliation, such as a user’s visit to a trade union’s site or app
  • religion or religious belief, such as from sites or apps that collect people’s affirmative information on religion or religious beliefs
  • negative financial status or situation, such as information indicating that a user has a low credit rating or high debt load
  • health or medical information, such as from sites or apps that market to a specific health-related group
  • status as a child under 13
  • the commission or alleged commission of any crime, such as information indicating that a user has a criminal record.

What This E-Mail Means for You

The new Google advertising policy rolls out this week. How it’ll be implemented remains to be seen, and sometimes Google policies are applied on a case-by-case basis that lacks clarity. This rollout will probably take some time, and we’ll likely see the new rule applied differently in different situations.

Specifically, Google says, “Beginning in the coming weeks, we’ll no longer accept interest-based ads related to divorce or marital separation.”

What Google is doing makes some sense. It doesn’t want upset users. If the husband searches for “divorce” and visits “North Carolina Divorce,” he doesn’t want his wife to notice remarketing ads on his desktop (“She’s not getting any nicer!”). I get it.

It’ll be interesting to see how Google perceives “divorce or marital separation.” Does that mean the new rule applies to termination of child support and custody advertising relating to issues arising long after separation? What about those same issues arising outside of the context of marriage? I can think of lots of things done by divorce lawyers that might fall outside of the common usage of these words. Or, Google may apply them very broadly.

You’ll note that Google is restricting only “interest-based” ads. Our understanding is that the use of that phrase limits the applicability of this new rule to remarketing ads (the ads that seemingly stalk you on the web after you visit a particular site). The remarketing ads are placed on your screen after you’ve visited a site and had a “cookie” placed on your device. Google then knows you have an “interest” in a particular topic and shows you ads related to your topic.

Further, based on conversations with Google, it appears that the new restrictions will only apply to Google’s display ad network and not to search ads. That’s typically a relatively small portion of the ads run by many law firms.

The Bottom Line

We believe that Google has eliminated “divorce or marital separation” remarketing ads on its display network and will roll out the change this week. If you’re running family law remarketing ads on display, then you likely got this e-mail and already talked to your advertising guru. If you’re contemplating running these ads (which was awesome while it lasted), then you’re likely out of luck.

Google has tremendous power in the marketplace. It’ll continue to exert it in its interests. This arena will be fluid for a long time. It’s best not to put all of your eggs in one basket. It’s best to diversify your marketing approaches and anticipate changes. This will certainly not be the last of them.

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