FTC to Search Engines: Stop Disguising Ads

Dennis Faas's picture

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning two dozen leading search engines -- including Bing, Google, and Yahoo -- that they must do more to show the difference between paid advertising and "natural" search results.

The FTC warned that blurring the lines between the two could be classed as an unlawful and deceptive practice.

The warning comes in a formal letter detailing updates to guidelines first published in 2002. The letter says that since that time, search engines are doing a worse job of distinguishing paid ads and that there has been "a decline in compliance with the letter's guidelines." (Source: pcmag.com)

In particular, the FTC is worried about advertising that appears at the top of the list of search results rather than in a separate position, such as the side of the screen.

Search Engine Accused of White-On-White Offence

According to the letter, some search engines have taken extreme liberties to get round the guidelines. It notes one case where the search engine had used shading to distinguish the paid ads -- but the shading was an off-white color and almost impossible to spot. (Source: ftc.gov)

The FTC now wants search engines to use prominent shading that will be visible on a wide range of devices -- including tablet computers and smartphones -- that may be used in varying lighting conditions.

The updated guidelines say sites could also use a clear border, or combine shading and a border.

The rules also say firms must use a text warning to identify ads. According to the letter, some search engines are hiding the warning in small print in the top right-hand corner of the ad listings.

Search Results Ad Labeling Must Be Clearer

Under the new guidelines, the warning must be on the left side of the screen (where people reading from left to right are more likely to see it) and in an "adequately sized and colored font."

The FTC also wants sites to use the same wording to indicate all types of advertising rather than use separate warning labels that sow confusion.

Though the FTC's comments are guidelines rather than legally binding rules, the commission warns that "failing to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be a deceptive practice." That could prompt investigation and even sanctions. (Source: ftc.gov)

The letter will no doubt appear familiar to Google. The FTC recently investigated a string of complaints regarding the firm's alleged anti-competitive behavior.

Although the FTC decided not to pursue most of the claims, the commission did reach a settlement with Google in which the search engine agreed to more clearly label ads that appear in search results.

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