Search Engines Must be Clear about Ads, F.T.C. Says
Advertisements need to be labeled as such when they are surfaced on a search engine results page, the FTC told search engine companies this week after finding the paid results were increasingly harder to tell apart from natural results.

Digital Media Changes Force Update

Search engine companies received a letter this week from the Federal Trade Commission notifying them about its updated policy on distinguishing ads from natural search results, and the agency is urging them to comply with the rules.

"Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party," Mary Engle, an associate director with the F.T.C.'s Division of Advertising Practices, Bureau of Consumer Protection wrote in the letter.

Engle cited a recent SEOBook survey on whether or not people could tell paid results from natural ones, and noted that nearly half couldn't tell if a result was an ad or not. This is apparently bordering on deception, the letter noted, and search engine companies have been so advised as to make paid search ads noticeable and understandable.

Despite the fact there are more searches conducted in apps or on social media than there was in 2002 when the F.T.C. first notified search engines about this issue, most people still search by typing text into a search box.

Because there is no single best way to distinguish ads from natural results, the agency duely notes there have traditionally been four ways companies like Google, Yahoo and Bing help searchers tell the paid results apart. They are:

  •  labeling the ads as sponsored or ad
  • shading ads with a different color background
  • separating ads by putting them above, below or the right side of natural results

Clear + Prominent Disclosure

Ads need to be clearly and prominently disclosed, the letter said, and search engine companies can do this mostly with visual cues and text labels. One of the problems seems to be companies are using less obvious background shading, for example.

Even for technologies like social media, the rules still apply, and when recommendations are made, for example, paid results still need to be highlighted. The F.T.C. includes the guidelines in its letter, but has also published a 50 page document called .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising to help companies comply with the updated guidelines.

The letter reads as more of a friendly reminder about any changes to the policy, and not really an indictment of any particular behavior. There were no mentions of what the penalties were for not complying, for example. Either way, this was the first update to a 10 year old policy, one that will undoubtedly need to be updated before another 10 years is up.

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