FTC Consumer Protection Staff Updates Agency's Guidance to Search Engine Industryon the Need to Distinguish Between Advertisements and Search Results

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In an ongoing effort to ensure that its guidance for online advertisers stays current with changes in digital media, the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection staff sent letters to search engine companies to update guidance published in 2002 on distinguishing paid search results and other forms of advertising from natural search results.  The letters note that in recent years, paid search results have become less distinguishable as advertising, and the FTC is urging the search industry to make sure the distinction is clear.

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 updated guidance has been sent to the general-purpose search engines AOL, Ask.com, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Google, and Yahoo!, as well as 17 of the most heavily trafficked search engines that specialize in the areas of shopping, travel, and local business, and that display advertisements to consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them.  To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).  The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.  The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.  Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

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Laura Sullivan
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