FTC to Search Engines: You're Slacking Off!

By Keri S. Bruce and Sulina D. Gabale.

After recent concerns over misleading native advertising efforts in online editorial content, the FTC puts a spotlight on search engines.

On Tuesday, June 25, the FTC sent out more than two dozen letters to various search engine companies, pushing them to clearly distinguish between paid advertising content and natural Internet search results. After noticing a decline in compliance with its search engine advertising disclosure letter issued back in 2002, the FTC sent out these letters as part of its overall effort to improve digital advertising disclosures.

In the letters, the agency advised search engine companies to improve the clarity and prominence of advertising disclosures by increasing visual cues (such as more prominent shading and borders) and text labels (such as using more prominent fonts and placements of advertising disclosures) for paid search content.  The FTC also noted that its guidance applies to other platforms as well, such as social media platforms that include paid advertising in user feeds.  The FTC based its growing concern off various studies – most notably, a 2005 Pew Research Center survey that found 62 percent of searchers were not even aware of the distinction between paid and non-paid results.

With the evolution of social media and rapidly changing platforms for communication, differentiating natural content from paid-for advertising can be difficult for a consumer.  However, the letter indicated that regardless of the form a search takes (or the platform used), paid results should be clearly distinguishable.  The FTC letters were sent to both general all-purpose search engines and to smaller, more specialized search engines that are heavily trafficked.

Without clear advertising disclosures to Internet audiences, search engines could potentially be liable for unfair or deceptive practices in violation of the FTC Act. Therefore, it is integral to strike a balance between innovative advertising methods and FTC compliance.

Copies of sample letters sent to general all-purpose and specialized search engines addressing the various concerns and solutions the Commission puts forth can be found on the FTC’s website.  For additional disclosure guidelines from the FTC, see the Endorsements and Testimonials Guides and the recently updated Dot Com Disclosures.

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