Location-based tools and offerings have been a growing trend on the web. We haven’t yet felt the full impact of this movement in the legal world, but recent developments by Google, Facebook and others will likely accelerate the process. Here are a few examples of location services and their potential impact in the legal context:
In late October 2010, Google introduced “Place Search”, a new kind of search result that places more emphasis on local businesses with a “bricks and mortar” presence. The change alters the results web users see when they perform a Google search for the search phrase “Toronto lawyers” for example.
7 Google Places listings – i.e. websites Google has identified as local businesses relevant to the search query – are identified with red pins lettered A-G and now take pride of place on much of the prime territory on the first page of results. For each of these seven results, Google displays:
- The visually prominent red pin;
- The link to your website;
- A magnifying glass icon enabling a thumbnail preview of your site;
- Your street address and phone number; and
- A separate link to your firm’s “Place Page”
The overall effect of the 7 red pins clustered together is to draw your eye to this section of results. (The map image that historically was on the left side of the page has now been moved over to the right hand column).
Of note to lawyers is that item 5 above – your Place Page – IS NOT your firm website. It is a separate web page auto-generated by Google. It also includes online reviews of your firm if any are available.
The Two Key Takeaways For Law Firms
First, as the business owner, you need to “claim your page” on Google Places. A quick review of the Canadian legal landscape confirms that a large number of firms – even at the national firm level – have not yet done so. Claiming your firm’s Google Places page prevents others from potentially hijacking this page, and also enables you to control some (not all) of the page’s content – for example you can add images (e.g. firm logo) and video links as well as a brief description of your services, and can ensure the accuracy of your contact information.
Second, the high prevalence that this page gives to anonymous reviews of your business means that folks with an axe to grind with your firm will have a high-profile way to do so – I’ve already seen at least one example of this in the Canadian context. Proactive firms may want to consider therefore whether it is advisable to invite some of their highly satisfied clients to contribute a review to the firm’s Google Place page outlining their positive experience. Choosing to ignore this area could mean that (for example) 98 entirely satisfied clients go unheard while 2 unhappy ones have a significant detrimental impact on your firm’s reputation online.
You can find out more about the changes Google has made to its search results here.
You can find out more about claiming your firm’s Place page here.
Facebook Places – now in a place near you.
Over the last couple of years a variety of different web services (e.g. Gowalla, Foursquare) have cropped up that enable users to “check-in” at various real-world locations (think restaurants, coffee houses, nightclubs, etc.) from their smartphones.
That phenomenon grew exponentially earlier this year when Facebook launched its location check-in feature Facebook Places first in the United States, and then in late September in Canada. As a result, a much broader spectrum of the populace is now checking in to all manner of locales. I admit to more than a little personal ambivalence about disclosing real-time location data of this type, although I have made a few tentative “check-ins” to test the new service.
Regardless of my own views, however, law firms won’t be immune to check-ins, as any Facebook Places user can create a place listing for your firm and check him or herself in. Although I don’t see it as critical as claiming your Google Place page, you may want to consider creating and claiming a Facebook Place for your firm as insulation against others doing so. You won’t be able to preclude people from checking in but you will at least own your Places page. If you already maintain a Facebook Page for your firm, it is possible to "merge" your Place page and your existing business page but I recommend against doing so currently. These new "merged" pages have significantly less formatting and layout flexibility than existing business pages, and the process is irreversible – once you've flipped the switch you are stuck with the new merged format and nothing short of a full delete of your page (and the resulting loss of all your fans) will let you recreate your earlier formatting. While maintaining separate business and place pages within Facebook isn't ideal, at the time of writing it appears the best option available.
Firms will also want to consider the privacy ramifications of your lawyers and staff checking themselves in at various locations and perhaps add specific language and/or training related to the potentially sensitive nature of location data in the firm’s social media policy and training plans. Checking in at a high-profile client’s office with an accompanying announcement that you are doing just that (with the client’s permission) might be a marketing win in certain circumstances, but will be an ethical and client relationship fiasco in many others when the very fact of your engagement is considered confidential by the client.
Facebook check-ins are a growing phenomenon and it is only a matter of time before this location data is also tendered as potential evidence (incriminating or exculpatory as the case may be) of a litigant’s presence or absence at a location-based incident.
YellowPages.ca – mobile search
Searching yellowpages.ca from your cellphone? The site recognizes this, and takes you to the mobile version. If you grant permission to use your phone’s location data, the site will display results based on their proximity to you. This has implications for firms that rely on yellow pages advertising to generate business – making it harder over time for firms to market to high-population areas while maintaining their offices in the suburbs for example.
Twitter Advanced Search
A relatively unknown but interesting feature of twitter’s search functionality is that using the advanced search feature you can filter to only view results from within a specified distance (e.g. 10km, 50km, 100km) of a designated location. You can set up a search to capture results for the phrase “business law” within 100km of Calgary for example, and then use the built in RSS feed on this page to maintain an ongoing feed of these results.
All of these location-based technologies are new to the scene and it will be some time yet before we can appreciate their full impact in the legal setting. What we do know currently is that the online world is getting a little less virtual with each passing day.