THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION (FTC) has warned 24 search engines, including Google and Microsoft's Bing, to ensure that they clearly identify paid advertisements.
The FTC has sent out a letter to 24 internet search companies including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and the suddenly more popular Duckduckgo, urging them to better identify paid-for adverts in search results. The letter is an update to guidance published by the US trade regulator in 2002, with the FTC noting in the letter than it has "observed a decline in compliance with the guidance".
The FTC's latest letter reads, "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. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers.
"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."
In its updated guidance, the FTC advises that internet search companies add "visual cues" to paid-for adverts, noting that background colours, as presently used by Google, are significantly less noticeable than they previously were. The FTC said that search engines should use "more prominent shading that has a clear outline" or a border that sets it apart from standard results.
In addition, the FTC told Google and others that paid-for ads must have a text label that uses language that explicitly and unambiguously conveys whether a search result is advertising and which is large enough for consumer to notice.
Noting that more people use smartphones and tablets to search the web now, the FTC also said that if a consumer uses voice based search, for example, the search engine should make an "audio disclosure that is of an adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend it".
The regulator warned that failure to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be a deceptive practice.
In a statement, Google said that it understood the importance of labeling advertisements, saying, "We've always strived to do that as our products have evolved." µ
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