Bill Hartzer

FTC Sends Letter to Search Engines Regarding Paid Ads Versus Natural Search Results

The FTC has sent a letter to many of the major search engines, including AOL,, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google, and Yahoo!, as well as 17 of the “most heavily trafficked search engines that specialize in the areas of shopping, travel, and local business, and that display advertisements to consumers” warning them about making the distinction between paid ads and natural search results.

With all of the new ways that consumers can get their search results (desktop search, mobile search, voice search, etc.), the FTC is warning the search engines that consumers must be notified that paid ads are paid ads–and it must be very clear which search results include paid ads and which do not.

Originally, in 2002, the FTC revised its search engine guidance. Today’s letter to the search engines from the FTC begins:

“In 2002, the staff of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection published a letter (“2002 Search Engine Letter”) advising search engines about the potential for consumers to be deceived, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, unless search engines clearly and prominently distinguished advertising from natural search results.

After the 2002 Search Engine Letter was issued, search engines embraced the letter’s guidance and distinguished any paid search results or other advertising on their websites. Since then, however, we have observed a decline in compliance with the letter’s guidance.”

The letter goes on to warn the search engines about the new ways consumers search the web:

the principles underlying the 2002 Search Engine letter remain the same: 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.

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.

The FTC wants to be certain that the search engines make sure consumers are not deceived. It should be really easy to distinguish between paid ads and natural search results.

The FTC encourages search engines to use Visual Cues to distinguish paid ads versus natural search results:

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;
(3) both prominent shading and a border.

An example of this would be the following search result:

In the above screen shot, you’ll notice that Google distinguishes the paid ads versus the non-paid ads (natural search results) by shading the area of paid ads in yellow.

In addition to visual cues, the FTC wants text labels, as well, saying:

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;
(3) is located near the search result (or group of search results) that it qualifies and where consumers will see it.

Google is complying with their recommendations by adding the text of “Ads related to concert tickets”, as seen in the screen capture below:

The FTC also mentions Font size:

Thus, we recommend that search engines place any text label used to distinguish advertising results immediately in front of an advertising result, or in the upper-left hand corner of an ad block, including any grouping of paid specialized results, in adequately sized and colored font.

The font size of that label saying it’s an ad must appear in front of the ad or in the upper left corner of an ad block.

Finally, the FTC addresses disclosure of paid ads in other forms, such as on social sites.

Regardless of the precise
form search may take in the future, the long-standing principle of making advertising distinguishable from natural results will remain applicable. For example, if a social network were to stream recommended restaurants based on what a particular consumer’s social contacts
have enjoyed, it should clearly distinguish as advertising any information feeds included or prioritized based in whole or in part on payments from a third party.

So, if you’re pulling ads from a feed, then you have to disclose that it’s an ad? I realize that this is going to be difficult in some cases–or maybe in a lot of cases. But, it’s a new requirement from the FTC. And, most interestingly, the FTC includes information about voice search.

Further, if a voice interface is used to deliver search results, a search engine should make an audio disclosure that is of an adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend it.

So, the consumer searches by voice, and if Siri or the Google Android voice is used to give you the search results, then a voice needs to disclose that it is a paid ad if that is part of the search results. It has to be loud enough so people can hear it.

By the way–congrats goes out my friend Aaron Wall, from SEO Book, who got a well-deserved link from the FTC letter!

Want to read more? Danny over at Search Engine Land has more.

Update: Links have been removed from this post. November 15, 2014.

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