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FTC Warns Search Engines to Better Distinguish Ads From Search Results

Letters sent to Google, Bing, Yahoo and 21 others

Search engines, like Google and Bing need to make sure users can easily distinguish between paid and actual search results, or they could run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission.

As part of its efforts to update guidance for digital advertisers, the FTC said Tuesday it sent letters to the nation's largest search engine companies, warning them that unless they clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural advertising results, they could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act that guards consumers against deceptive advertising.

The letters were sent to AOL, Ask.com, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google and Yahoo! and 17 other heavily trafficked specialized search engines (like shopping or travel)

"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," the FTC wrote.

The FTC cited an online survey from SEOBook that found that nearly half of searchers did not recognize that top ads were different from natural search results and were unable to distinguish the background shading used to distinguish the ads.

In the letter the FTC provides some concrete guidelines search engines should use to make sure consumers are not deceived by paid search results, including using stronger visual cues and using a text label that is large and visible enough for consumers to notice. The FTC recommended that shading should be more prominent with a clear outline, have a border that sets off ads from natural search results, or both.

"We have observed that search engines have reduced the font size of some text labels to identify top ads and other advertising and often locate these labels in the top right-hand corner of the shaded area or “ad block,” as is the case with top ads. Consumers may not as readily notice the labels when placed in the top right-hand corner, especially when the labels are presented in small print and relate to more than one result," the FTC wrote in its letter. 

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