The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants search engines to take better care in distinguishing advertising from organic search results.
“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 (‘top ads’),” Mary K. Engle, the FTC’s Associate Director for Advertising Practices, wrote in a June 24 letter.
In light of that, the FTC requests that search-engine companies more clearly label advertising as separate from search results. “We understand that there is not any one specific method for clearly and prominently distinguishing advertising from natural search results,” Engle wrote, “and that search engines may develop new methods for distinguishing advertising results.” But any method (including visual cues and text labels) can be used to differentiate advertising, she added, “so long as it is noticeable and understandable to consumers.”
The letter, which concluded by encouraging search-engine companies to review their Websites, was sent to AOL, Ask.com, Bing (owned by Microsoft), Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google, Yahoo, and 17 other search engines that specialize in specific categories such as travel.
The FTC’s guidance on the matter extends back more than a decade: in 2002, the agency first issued a Search Engine Letter that asked search-engine companies to visually separate ads from organic search results. From the FTC’s perspective, those companies initially hewed to the guidelines offered in that letter, only to drift away in subsequent years.
Despite the respectful tone of the current letter, the FTC can bare some pretty big fangs. The prospect of tangling with the agency over antitrust action fills corporate executives with fear, and companies such as Google have been forced to shell out significant fines in response to FTC decisions. So while the letter is framed more as a series of “suggestions” than anything else, it’s unlikely that any of the targeted companies doubt the agency’s ability to bite if they don’t take its recommendations under serious consideration.