FTC Reminds Search Engines to Clearly Differentiate Ads from Organic Results

The visual cues that separate organic search results from paid ads have been blurring for some time now, and if you use search engines regularly, you may have noticed the changes. But even if you are a frequent user of search engines, the changes may have been too subtle over time to have been noticed.

The FTC has noticed, though, and sent letters to the search engine companies letting them know that recent changes in the FTC’s guidances on disclosures in digital advertising emphasize the need clear visual cues, labels or other techniques to distinguish ads from organic results.

One of the main reasons for the letters is the increasing inclusion of social media, video and other types of results search engine results. Each new type of result creates a different set of visual cues that make it more difficult to separate ads from organic results. In addition, the proliferation of mobile apps that display ads and search results in different ways adds to the confusion.

Two specific examples that prompted the FTC letters:

  • The gradual fading of the shaded background behind the PPC ads at the top of the search engine results page to the point where nearly half of consumers couldn’t tell they weren’t organic results.
  • Specialized search options, such as narrowing results to news, images, local, etc., where the results are based, at least in part, on payments from a third party to the search engine company.

Letters have been sent to general search engines, such as Google, Bing and Ask, as well as to shopping, travel and local business sites that display ads to users.


About Lee Stral

Lee is a marketing consultant who has specialized in Internet marketing and Web site development since the Internet first showed promise as a marketing channel. Prior to founding Essential Presence, he was partner in an integrated marketing communications agency working with technology, professional service and non-profit organizations.