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Search engines need to be more careful to make it clear what results are actually ads, the Federal Trade Commission warned Tuesday.

In letters to Google, Yahoo, AOL, Bing, and several other search engines, the FTC updated its guidelines from 2002 about the need to distinguish between advertisements and organic search results. Since the original 2002 letter, the FTC has seen a decline in compliance.

“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 group said.

To avoid that problem, search engines should use visual cues, labels, or other techniques to make clear which items are ads, whether the results are shown on the normal web, social media, mobile apps, voice assistants on mobile devices, etc.

“Although the ways in which search engines retrieve and present results, and the devices on which consumers view these results, are constantly evolving, the principles underlying the 2002 Search Engine letter remain the same: 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,” wrote the FTC in a sample letter to the search companies. “Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising.”

Paid placement allows an advertiser to pay for higher ranking or prominence on a results page relative to a keyword or search. This raised the FTC’s concern in 2002 after users were routinely misled by phrasing like “featured” or “recommended” results.

Author
Brad Merrill is a journalist, writer, entrepreneur, and the editor in chief of VentureBreak. His writing currently appears in various places across the web, including his blog. Brad is passionate about startups, technology, and their influence on life and culture. This passion—combined with his drive to expose the truth in every story—led him to found VentureBreak in 2010. He is known for his honest reporting and his sometimes-extreme opinions. Some of his work has been referenced by such notable publications as the Wall Street Journal.
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