FTC to Search Engines: Distinguish Paid Search Results or Risk FTC Action

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While Google is already subject to commitments it made to the FTC regarding the requirement to afford advertisers non-discriminatory access to its search engine, the FTC’s latest guidance makes clear that Google and other search engines must also maintain clear disclosures to the public about sponsored content in search results.

On June 24, 2013, in a series of letters to general search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Ask.com, as well as to specialized search engines, the FTC issued updated guidance concerning disclosures regarding paid advertisements in search results.

This latest FTC action follows on the heels of the Commission’s recent updates to the Dot Com Disclosures and the updated Endorsements and Testimonials Guides. The FTC’s letters came in response to industry and consumer organizations’ requests to the Commission to update its policies on search engine results, last released in 2002. The FTC also noted that it has observed a decline in search engines’ compliance since 2002.

The FTC’s central concern, first articulated in 2002, remains the problem that consumers may be deceived in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act unless search engines clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results.

Consumers assume that search results reflect the most relevant results. When results appear because the advertiser has paid a search engine for, say, prominent placement, that placement could be deceptive to consumers if they are unaware of the commercial relationship between the advertiser and the search engine.

The growth of mobile commerce in particular has spurred the FTC to issue new guidelines. Search results on a mobile phone screens are, by their nature, small, and consumers could be easily confused by paid search results if the “paid” nature of those results is not clear.

In the new guidance, the FTC states that if search engines continue to distinguish advertising results by giving a different background color or shading combined with a text label (such as “sponsored” or “ad”), the search engines should consider multiple factors to ensure that any labels and visual cues are sufficiently “noticeable and understandable” to consumers. The agency clarified that there is no “one size fits all” and that search engines may use various methods, provided the disclosures are noticeable and understandable.

Proper disclosures, according to the FTC, include the following:

• Visual Cues – Search engines must select hues of sufficient luminosity to account for varying monitor types, technology settings, and lighting conditions. The FTC notes that search engines should consider using web pages of different luminosities for mobile devices and desktop computers. Further, the FTC recommends that search engines should use:

o more prominent shading that has a clear outline;
o a prominent border that distinctly sets off advertising from the natural search results; or
o both prominent shading and a border

• Text Labels – The FTC asserts that text labels must be used in addition to the visual cues a search engine may use to distinguish advertising. Text labels must:

o use language that explicitly and unambiguously conveys that a search result is advertising;
o be large and visible enough for consumers to notice it;
o be located near the search results (or group of search results) that it qualifies and where consumers will see it; and
o be placed 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.

The new guidance also recognizes that technology will continue to evolve, such as voice assistants on mobile devices (e.g., the iPhone’s “Siri”). While technology may change, the new guidance makes clear that the FTC Act’s Section 5 prohibition on deceptive practices remains. Therefore, businesses must make sure that they differentiate advertising from other information. For instance, if a voice interface is used to deliver search results (for example, “find me a Mexican restaurant”) the search engine should disclose audibly any paid advertisements in adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend.

The FTC continues to be vigilant in monitoring the online marketplace. Search engines and advertisers need to review their practices, keeping in mind that disclosures that may be readily apparent on a desktop may be hidden on a mobile screen. As with the “Dot Com Disclosures,” the agency is providing guidance to businesses; however, FTC enforcement remains vigilant and companies that do not clearly disclose paid advertising in search results could face an FTC investigation.