FTC tells search engines to label ads more clearly

Decline in compliance

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has urged search engines to label paid ads more clearly in their search results.

The US watchdog announced yesterday that it has sent a letter to 24 general and speciality search engines, updating guidance that was first published in 2002.

Since the original Search Engine Letter, the FTC has noted a 'decline in compliance', warning that companies could be in danger of misleading consumers with ads that are indistinguishable from natural search results - and companies that violate the FTC's guidelines can face heavy fines. The letter explains:

"Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers."

Recipients of the FTC's warning included Google, Bing, Yahoo, AOL, Ask, Blekko and DuckDuckGo, as well as 17 shopping, travel and local search engines. It was not revealed if or to what extent any particular companies were culpable.

Ad disclosure guidelines

The FTC letter goes on to provide clear advice on the many ways search engines can ensure they comply with the guidance. Suggestions include:

  • More prominent shading or a border on ads in SERPs
  • Text labelling that is visible, in a large font, and located above or to the left of the ad
  • Unambiguous and consistent wording, e.g. 'ad'

Exactly the same principles will be applied to voice search, social layer searches and any future developments in the industry, with clear and prominent disclosure key to compliance.

Natalie Booth, head of search at theEword, commented: "Search changes so rapidly, it's easy to imagine guidance published in 2002 may no longer be relevant. However, by sending this letter to the search engines the FTC is clearly taking a stand to promote the core issues of transparency and consumer protection, and is likely to crack down heavily on any continuing offenders."

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