Google, Yahoo and Bing warned by FTC over advert labelling

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The Federal Trade Commission has written to search engines operating in the US warning them to “clearly and prominently” distinguish advertising from “natural” search results. According to the consumer watch group, over the past decade it has seen companies beginning to mix the two.

The letter (PDF) was sent to Google, Yahoo and Bing. Other recipients included AOL, Blekko, DuckDuckGo and 17 other specialist search engines for shopping, travel, and local business which display adverts to users.

The FTC, set up to protect US consumers’ interests, did not name any search engine company in particular as having breached its rules, but it warned the companies that “consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party.

It says in the past year, the tendency for search engines to put adverts immediately above “natural” results – as Google and others do – has led more than half of users not to recognize them as adverts.

In a survey, nearly half of searchers said the background shading for adverts was white – exactly the opposite of the correct answer, where paid ads above “natural” results are distinguished on almost all search engines by having a non-white background shading. Paid adverts on the right of natural search results have a white background on Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Google said in a statement to the Reuters news agency that clear labelling and disclosure of paid search were important and “we’ve always strived to do that as our products have evolved.”

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