Feds Warn Google, Bing and Yahoo About Tricking Consumers

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The federal government says search engines need to be clearer about identifying advertising and paid results.

Some search engines may be in trouble.

In a letter to Google, Bing, Yahoo and 21 other search engines, the Federal Trade Commission warned they aren’t living up to the standards they were 10 years ago:

In 2002, the staff of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection published a 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 agency explains that while there have been lots of new search functions in the past decade — searches through social media, mobile devices, voice and specialized results integrated into regular searches are mentioned — the basics are still pretty clear. Consumers shouldn’t be duped. Advertising needs to stick out like a sore thumb.

“Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising,” the FTC says, and needs to be properly labeled. “Any method may be used, so long as it is noticeable and understandable to consumers.”

Some current methods clearly aren’t. The FTC cites a recent study showing that about half of searchers thought ads placed above search results were part of the results, instead of the advertising that they are. That group didn’t notice the subtle difference in background shading used to identify them, saying it was white like the rest of the background.

The FTC letter urges search engines to use darker backgrounds and a clear border to separate advertising, along with a label that’s large enough and close enough to recognize. They should also use consistent terminology (instead of calling some things “ads” and others “advertisements” or “sponsored”), it says.

Hopefully the FTC is planning to send a similar letter to Facebook, which, as The New York Times has noted, is increasingly prioritizing paid content in our news feeds.

Stacy Johnson

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