Like hundreds of thousands of other advertisers, many law firms contract with Yahoo and Google to serve up small text ads to anyone searching the Web using certain words, such as “Vioxx” or “mesothelioma,” a rare form of asbestos-linked cancer. The firms, which have affiliates throughout the country, pay the search companies a fee each time someone clicks on one of their ads. Amid heated bidding with other advertisers, primarily personal-injury law firms, for “mesothelioma,” some firms paid around $100 a click last year.

The search-ad market is estimated at around $4 billion in the U.S. in 2004, and the vast majority of Google’s revenue comes from search and similar keyword-triggered Web-site ads. But there is increasing evidence that some people are clicking on such ads either to run up fees for competitors, to boost the placement of their own ads or to make money for themselves.

The Web-search companies concede that click fraud is an issue but decline to quantify its scope; some outside estimates run as high as 20% of all clicks. Many companies complain that Google, Yahoo and other search engines are vague about how they are tackling the problem, unresponsive to questions about suspect clicks and ineffective when advertisers point out possible abuses.

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