FTC tells Google, Yahoo, Bing, others to better differentiate ads in web content searches

FTC says distinction between what’s an ad and what’s an actual search engine result has blurred, deceiving consumers

The FTC this week sent letters to AOL, Ask.com, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google, and Yahoo!, as well as 17 of the most heavily trafficked search engines asking them to do a better job of making clear what is an ad and what isn't when serving up search results.

The FTC said the letters offer new "guidance" on the "need for visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements, in order to avoid misleading consumers, and it makes recommendations for ensuring that disclosures commonly used to identify advertising are noticeable and understandable to consumers.  The new directions follow a 2002 FTC search engine review that plainly stated: "There's a potential for deception unless search engines clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results."

The FTC said that the principles of the original guidance still apply, even as search and the business of search continue to change. 

"The letters observe that social media, mobile apps, voice assistants on mobile devices, and specialized search results that are integrated into general search results offer consumers new ways of getting information.  The guidance advises that regardless of the precise form that search takes now or in the future, paid search results and other forms of advertising should be clearly distinguishable from natural search results," the FTC stated.

One concern the FTC  staff raised is that the ways some search engines currently differentiate ads from natural results may be less noticeable to consumers.  For example, you know those "top ads" - the paid results located at the very top of the page in a shaded box?  Those boxes appears to be getting fainter.  And according to one online study cited in staff's letter, nearly half of users didn't recognize them as distinct from natural search results, the agency said.

Results that integrate or offer specialized search options as part of the service - say, by allowing users to narrow their search to categories like news, images, local businesses, etc.  Sometimes those searches are just another way of presenting natural results.  But other times the results are based at least in part on payments from a third party to the search engine company, the FTC said.

The letter goes on to emphasize the "importance of distinguishing advertising from natural results in a clear and prominent manner."  Certainly, advertisers have flexibility in how they accomplish that - "Any method may be used, so long as it is noticeable and understandable to consumers" - but what matters is consumer perception.

In the letter the FTC states: "We have observed that, increasingly, search engines have introduced background shading that is significantly less visible or "luminous" and that consumers may not be able to detect on many computer monitors or mobile devices. Reliance on this method to distinguish advertising results requires that search engines select hues of sufficient luminosity to account for varying monitor types, technology settings, and lighting conditions. Accordingly, we recommend that in distinguishing any top ads or other advertising results integrated into the natural search results, search engines should use: (1) more prominent shading that has a clear outline; (2) a prominent border that distinctly sets off advertising from the natural search results; or (3) both prominent shading and a border.

In addition to the visual cues a search engine may use to distinguish advertising, it also should have a text label that: (1) uses language that explicitly and unambiguously conveys if a search result is advertising; (2) is large and visible enough for consumers to notice it; and (3) is located near the search result (or group of search results) that it qualifies and where consumers will see it.

We understand that there is not any one specific method for clearly and prominently distinguishing advertising from natural search results, and that search engines may develop new methods for distinguishing advertising results. Any method may be used, so long as it is noticeable and understandable to consumers."

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