FTC Warns Search Engines on Disclosure Compliance

The FTC has consistently stressed that a consumer should know when content is advertisements.  As a result, the FT C has sent letters to search engines instructing them to clarify how they display ads within search results since “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.”

They were particularly concerned about specialized search results where the results were determined by payments from the parties displayed, which the FTC believed should be identified as an advertisement to consumers.

Letters have gone out to AOL, Ask, Bing, Blekko, Duck Duck Go, Google and Yahoo as general purpose search engines and 17 “of the most heavily trafficked” shopping, travel and local search engines.  When Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan asked the FTC about the specialized search engines, “the FTC said. . . . it is not releasing what those 17 other services are, nor what sources were used to determine them.”  Sullivan believes they likely include services like Kayak, Yelp and Nextag.


Among the FTC recommendations were 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.
    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.
  • To avoid the potential for ambiguity and deception, search engines should consider using the same terminology to label any form of advertising delivered to consumers. 


More Info:

FTC Updates Search Engine Ad Disclosure Guildelines After “Decline In Compliance”, Search Engine Land.