The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has updated is guidance to the search engine industry regarding the need to distinguish between advertisements and search results.
Search industry veteran Danny Sullivan wrote a letter to the FTC just over a year ago calling upon the commission to scrutinize Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, Nextag, Twenga and TripAdvisor, with regards to the disclosure of paid listings. It's unclear whether today's update comes as a result of Sullivan's letter, but it seems pretty likely.
The FTC has sent letters to search engine companies noting that in recent years, paid search results have "become less distinguishable as advertising". The commission said in an announcement:
The letters are the latest example of the FTC’s work to update its guidance for digital advertisers, which also includes recent updates to the Dot Com Disclosures and Endorsements and Testimonials Guides. The letters also respond to requests from industry and consumer organizations to update the 2002 guidance.
According to both the FTC staff’s original search engine guidance and the updated guidance, failing to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be a deceptive practice. The updated guidance emphasizes the need for visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements, in order to avoid misleading consumers, and it makes recommendations for ensuring that disclosures commonly used to identify advertising are noticeable and understandable to consumers.
The letters note that the principles of the original guidance still apply, even as search and the business of search continue to evolve. The letters observe that social media, mobile apps, voice assistants on mobile devices, and specialized search results that are integrated into general search results offer consumers new ways of getting information. The guidance advises that regardless of the precise form that search takes now or in the future, paid search results and other forms of advertising should be clearly distinguishable from natural search results.
The guidance has been directed at AOL, Ask, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google, Yahoo and seventeen other specialty search engines.
You can see the actual letter here (pdf).[via Danny Sullivan]