FTC Criticizes ‘Deceptive’ Search Engine Results That Fail to Distinguish Ads From Organic Results

Last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) told the web’s top search engines — Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Bing — to more clearly distinguish paid ad space from their organic search results; more than a year later, these search engines have barely done anything to separate their ads from organic results.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google no longer places colored shading around its paid ad space, instead using a small yellow “ad” label to indicate an advertisement. On Yahoo! and Bing, paid search results are outlined with a barely-perceptible light gray text.

“While FTC guidelines call for ‘clear’ and ‘prominent’ visual cues to separate advertisements from algorithmic results, Google has moved in the opposite direction,” Ben Edelman, a Harvard researcher, said.

The FTC claims this failure to set paid ads apart from organic results is deceiving consumers and violating its 2002 guidelines that require search engines to clearly delineate between the two types of results.

“I believe we should easily see what is a paid advertisement and what is an organic result,” says Tiffiny Hladczuk, President of ITS. “We can make our decision as to which we prefer from there.”

Despite the fact that search engines are doing less and less to mark the distinction between their paid ads and organic results, most users are still able to tell them apart — statistics show that about 70 to 80% of people who use search engines will ignore paid or sponsored advertisements.

The FTC did not respond to the Wall Street Journal‘s request for a comment on whether it would enforce its guidelines among the search engines that violate it, or follow up on its 2013 letter.

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