The Wall Street Journal reports Google, along with Yahoo and Microsoft, is under scrutiny by the FTC for doing little to heed the direction of federal regulators to more clearly highlight ads in search engine results pages.
The FTC claims it is difficult for users to tell the difference between ads and organic search results. In 2002, the FTC began issuing guidelines that recommend search engines clearly highlight paid listings. In June 2013, Mary Engle, the FTC’s associate director for advertising practices, warned the top search engines of a decline in compliance with those guidelines.
Engle suggested that search engines emphasize ads with more prominent shading and to label them “explicitly and unambiguously.” In response, Google said it has “always prominently labeled advertisements.” Yahoo believes its practices in displaying search results are consistent with FTC guidelines, and Microsoft pointed out that Bing has clear labels to distinguish ads from organic listings.
The Wall Street Journal points to a new study by a Harvard researcher that shows how Google steadily lightened the colored shading behind its ads over the past 12 years, eventually eliminating it entirely.
Jakob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group, a consultancy that focuses on how people interact with websites, claims that Google is trying to deceive consumers by making ads resemble regular content. As a result, ads are getting more clicks.
Further criticism against Google includes the fact that Google doesn’t use the “Ad” label for all paid links. For example, some product ads are labeled as “sponsored.” That goes against FTC guidelines which state the same terminology must be used to label any form of advertising.
Search ads are growing so prominent that they’re all a user may see above the fold, depending on what kind of device they’re searching on. The screen on a smartphone, for example, doesn’t offer much room for organic listings when competing for space with ads. With ads taking up this much real estate on a users screen, the issue of labelling them is growing more important.
However, despite all the criticism from the FTC, some believe the search engines aren’t the least bit worried because of the FTC’s failure to act thus far.
Hat tip to Greg Sterling of MarketingWorld for first pointing out the WSJ article.