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FTC: Search Engines Blurring Paid Ads, Organic Results

3 Jul, 2013 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent a letter to search engine operators, including Google, Bing, AOL and Yahoo, charging that they’re blurring the differences between paid ads and organic listings. The letter also offers suggested fixes for the problem.

“In recent years, the features traditional search engines use to differentiate advertising from natural search results have become less noticeable to consumers, especially for advertising located immediately above the natural results,” Mary Engle, FTC associate director for advertising practices, writes in the letter. “To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers.”

It’s the first time the agency has broached the topic in a major way since 2002 when it said search companies should “clearly differentiate” sponsored ads from organic results.

The FTC says some search companies no longer use markedly different background colors for paid ads and organic listings. “A recent online survey by a search strategies company found that nearly half of searchers did not recognize top ads as distinct from natural search results and said the background shading used to distinguish the ads was white,” the letter states.

The FTC also said that some search engines might confuse consumers by placing ad labels on the top right-hand corner of a block of listings. “Consumers may not as readily notice the labels when placed in the top right-hand corner, especially when the labels are presented in small print and relate to more than one result. Web research suggests that webpages are normally viewed from left-center to right, with substantially less focus paid to the right-hand side,” the letters stated.

The agency suggested that search engines could remedy that issue by placing ads in box with “prominent shading that has a clear outline,” or use a “prominent border” between ads and natural search results.

The update to the 2002 published guidance urges companies to make a strong distinction for all forms of advertising, including product listing ads and search in Facebook or other social sites.

MediaPost News reports that while the letter offers specific recommendations, the underlying principles are no different from the ones set out in 2002, according to attorney Jeffrey Greenbaum. “The FTC is really responding to the fact that, over the last decade, for whatever reason, search engines appear not to be complying with the earlier guidance,” says Greenbaum, an advertising lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. “Compliance often fades over time. When the FTC first issues guidance, people pay attention to it. But advertising practices evolve.”

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