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Natural Search Return or Paid Result? FTC Says Its Too Hard To Tell the Difference

ad note on googleWhen looking at a page of search results I often feel like I’m playing a round of Where’s Waldo. But instead of the guy in the striped t-shirt, I’m looking for the place where the paid ads end and the natural search results begin.

I don’t have evidence to prove it, but I feel like that line used to be more clearly defined. There would be a couple of very obvious ads at the top of the page and rest would be sites that earned their spot the hard way. Results in the right hand column were always ads. I can’t remember at what point ads started appearing in the main results as well.

The FTC is as confused as I am and they want this problem solved, now. And since they have more power over search engines than I do, they wrote them a letter expressing their displeasure.

Much of their concern comes from the new trend to feature results in a more prominent and / or graphical fashion at the top of the page.

Although sometimes specialized search is just another way of organizing and presenting a subset of natural results, in other instances, it is something different entirely. Sometimes the results returned as part of a specialized search are based at least in part on payments from a third party. If that is the case, it is also a form of advertising and should be identified as such to consumers.

You could say that consumers just want relevant answers (Italian restaurants in my neighborhood) and don’t care if the result was paid for or not. I’m not sure I care. On the other hand, it’s a trust issue. We trust Google to give us the best results at the top. If George’s Pizza Palace naturally falls on the second page because his pizza isn’t very good, he shouldn’t be allowed to buy his way to the top. Now, if his information shows up in a gray box with the word AD in bold letters under it, the situation is clear and honest.

Here’s the flipside. What if George makes the best pizza and probably would have landed in the top spot anyway. George is a go-getter, so he pays for bigger ad on Google anyway. Now, I see the “Ad” and skip it because I want natural results. I go to Ginger’s Pizza Palace instead because she let her abilities, not her money, do the talking.

Am I over thinking this?

Let’s get back to the letter from the FTC. Here’s what they want:

Visual Cues

We have observed that, increasingly, search engines have introduced background shading that is significantly less visible or “luminous” and that consumers may not be able to detect on many computer monitors or mobile devices. Reliance on this method to distinguish advertising results requires that search engines select hues of sufficient luminosity to account for varying monitor types, technology settings, and lighting conditions. Accordingly, we recommend that in distinguishing any top ads or other advertising results integrated into the natural search results, search engines should use: (1) more prominent shading that has a clear outline; (2) a prominent border that distinctly sets off advertising from the natural search results; or (3) both prominent shading and a border.

Text Labels

We recommend that search engines place any text label used to distinguish advertising results 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. In addition, to avoid the potential for ambiguity and deception, search engines should consider using the same terminology to label any form of advertising delivered to consumers. For example, if a search engine labels some advertisements as “ads,” it should consider using the same label for any other advertisements. Using different terms to label various types of advertisements risks confusing consumers.

The letter goes on to say that they understand the need to be flexible. Search marketing is constantly evolving, so techniques that worked a year ago, may not work today. The bottom line is the same – there needs to be a clear difference between paid results and natural search results. A difference any consumer would notice at a glance.

The letter never demands a change. Instead, its filled with phrases like “we encourage businesses to consult the guidance provided in this letter” and “We appreciate your cooperation.” But come on. . . this is the FTC. Is ignoring their “suggestions” really an option?

What do you think? Are marketers benefiting from the muddied waters or is the FTC making too much out of a small thing?

  • incrediblehelp

    Rediculous to be honest!