FTC Warns Google, Other Search Sites To Make Ads More Recognizable
June 26, 2013

FTC Warns Google, Other Search Sites To Make Ads More Recognizable

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a warning to search engine operators Google, Microsoft and others about the way their advertisements are presented in search results.

An FTC letter to these companies updates guidelines set in place in 2002. In the more than ten years after the publication of those initial guidelines, selling ads has become a major business and has earned some companies billions of dollars. According to the FTC, the boundaries set in place in 2002 are being ignored and it wants to reel in these search providers before things go too far.

“Although the ways in which search engines retrieve and present results, and the devices on which consumers view these results, are constantly evolving, 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,” writes Mary K Engle, FTC’s associate director for advertising practices in a sample letter posted on the commission’s website.

“Given the importance of distinguishing advertising from natural results in a clear and prominent manner, we recommend you review this letter and make any necessary changes to conform to this guidance,” reads the letter.

According to surveys cited in the FTC’s letter, consumers are likely to be confused by search results and mistake ads for links returned in earnest. For example, a 2005 Pew survey found that 45 percent of users would quit using a particular search provider if they did not make it clear that some results were sponsored by advertising dollars.

Noting that search has become a larger business than it was in 2002, Engle gives some suggestions for AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and other recipients on how to clearly distinguish ads from actual search results.

Visual cues are one way that search engine providers can distinguish ads from content, but Engle notes that as the years have passed some companies have lightened the amount of shading behind an ad. She notes the shading on some ads is so light, some monitors might not display the darker color at all. Engle recommends a more prominent shading that’s clearly outlined, a border that sets the ad apart from the rest of the results, or a combination of the two. She also suggests using clear language and text to make users aware of ads on the site. For instance, she writes that search engine operators could begin labeling ads as such with a text label in a clear, easy to read font in a different color.

“We encourage you to review your websites or other methods of displaying search results, including your use of specialized search, and make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising,” writes Engle.

In a statement to Cnet, a Google spokesperson said in part: "clear labeling and disclosure of paid results is important, and we've always strived to do that as our products have evolved."

A Microsoft spokesperson shared similar sentiments, saying distinguishing ads is "an important issue to the industry and we take our role in it as a search leader very seriously. We look forward to analyzing the FTC guidance and working to ensure consumers can continue to trust Bing for their search needs."