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FTC Demands Search Engines Separate Paid Advertisements From Search Results 230

Posted by Soulskill
from the signal-to-noise dept.
An anonymous reader notes that the FTC has sent letters to search engine companies (PDF) telling them to make sure advertisements are clearly distinguishable from search results. "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."
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FTC Demands Search Engines Separate Paid Advertisements From Search Results

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  • Sounds like BS to me (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:23PM (#44103239)

    Google never indicated, to me at least, what was in the search results. I don't see how it could be deceptive.

    And even if it was, does that matter, since I don't pay Google one red cent for the service?

    • by h4rr4r (612664) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:28PM (#44103327)

      Regulating advertising is a function of the FTC.

      Just because you are not paying is no reason why advertising should be represented as anything else.

      • by pr0fessor (1940368) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:12PM (#44103869)

        Google already does this... if you search for a product the first results you get are "Ads related to {Your Search Terms}" There are usually two or three online retailers followed by local retailers and google map showing those local retailers. Scroll past that and you get the actual search results and text ads on the right of each result page. Yahoo and Bing try to do the same thing {bing doesn't show a map} and duckduckgo has it's ads in a different color and they say "Sponsored Link" next to them.
        {I don't actually use yahoo, bing, or duckduckgo but had to look and see how they were laid out}
        Not sure how any other search engines are laid out but figure those are the four I hear the most about. I figure for public relations and to keep traffic the top search engines will do this anyway.

        • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:44PM (#44104243)

          Google already does this... if you search for a product the first results you get are "Ads related to {Your Search Terms}" There are usually two or three online retailers followed by local retailers and google map showing those local retailers.

          Actually the FTC letter is much clearer on this than the summary. (Hey, its Slashdot, what else is new?)

          The FTC letter addresses PAID search results. (As well as the super-set of paid search results that are PROMOTED search results).

          These must be distinguished from hits on the text of the page. The net result is that if your company is a Google advertiser (adwords for example) and one of the hits shown brings up your Adwords link it must be clearly delineated from the list of hits that just trigger based on the content of the page.

          Even if both are present, only the paid advertising must be so marked.

          And I agree, Google does a pretty good job of making the distinction, both on the desktop and on mobile devices.

          Bing: Not so much.

          For instance, I searched a random thing: Peach Trees.
          I used both Bing and Google. Google clearly showed what was paid advertising.
          With Bing, I was never really sure, other than one result is always promoted to the top with an option to "only show results from".

          I'm left guessing if ANY results are paid or not.

          Try it again, using any random make of car, say Ford Mustang or Toyota Prius.
          Google clearly differentiates the Paid ads.
          Bing does not.

      • Regulating advertising is a function of the FTC.

        Yes, but only in the United States. The issue I have is that a US agency is asserting that is has authority over what happens on the world wide web.

    • by recoiledsnake (879048) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:02PM (#44103749)

      Google and other ads are specifically designed to look like search results and exploit the fact that older people cannot see contrast of the background as well as younger people. Or even younger people using bad quality or badly calibrated monitors. (Or using Flux).

      The contrast on the background is much lower than the federal 508 standard for contrast and I think has changed to over the years to a lighter shade as Google "optimizes" it.

      http://i.imgur.com/Wmdd0.png [imgur.com]

      One is an ad and one is a search result, is there much difference? Given the average quality of monitors, I think those are designed to fool even otherwise sharp eyes.

      There is a border on the right of the ads but none on at the bottom. Google must be getting tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue from the color change from blue to yellow, the ones shown in the example are about $50 to $100 for each click.

      http://ppcblog.com/fbf0fa-now-you-see-it [ppcblog.com]

      http://blumenthals.com/blog/2012/01/31/is-google-intentionally-trying-to-minimize-the-fact-that-these-are-ads/ [blumenthals.com]

      Guess they employ many behavioral psychologist super PHDs who tweaked the carefully and scientifically calibrated colors on ads and removed all contrast including borders to make many folks not realize where the ads end and the actual results begin. Forget about people going to paid websites and screwing websites that don't charge users that rank well organically because they're good and popular but don't give the Googolplex any money.

      "Study:Contrast sensitivity gradually decreases with age"
      http://www.eyeworld.org/article.php?sid=818&strict=0&morphologic=0 [eyeworld.org]

      • by recoiledsnake (879048) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:08PM (#44103823)

        Google and other ads are specifically designed to look like search results and exploit the fact that older people cannot see contrast of the background as well as younger people. Or even younger people using bad quality or badly calibrated monitors

        I was reading their corporate motto "Do no evil" on their site, and then I saw your post and upped the contrast on my monitor and then saw the entire text that was hidden earlier, "Do no evil - except when it makes us money. In that case, be very very evil." !

        You and the FTC must really be on to be something here!!!

        • Crap! Slashdot's "Post Anonymously" checkbox needs more contrast!

        • by lgw (121541)

          Nah, Google's corporate motto is "Don't, be evil". The comma is just printed in a very low-contrast color.

      • Your second link, in the comments has a solution to the problem presented in the article. If someone has a monitor that only displays 256 colors, and doesn't display my high color picture correctly, that is my fault how? How about creating a solution to the problem, an alternative CSS for Google that can be used on older / crappier monitors, rather than complaining?

      • One is an ad and one is a search result, is there much difference? Given the average quality of monitors, I think those are designed to fool even otherwise sharp eyes.

        I have a Dell IPS, and a craptastic non-name-brand sub-$100 LCD, run with f.lux to set them much warmer, and it's really clear on both of them that the ad is on a beige/yellow background while the search result is not. Also, the group of ads is labelled at the top, which you didn't include in your crop, but it's important since just on the layout they're fairly clearly grouped and laid out differently than the search results when there's more than one.

        Maybe they're targeting older individuals, but at least

      • I have never cared for flat monitors, are they really so bad you can't tell the difference between those? Looks ok to me but could use a border for clarity...assuming clarity is desired ;)

        You probably can't see a diference in Bing at all then. Ad section is a slightly greenish background. Way too subtle IMHO.
        Bing does have a light border at the right edge. If one tried to print the results page however that light border on one side wins over Google's VERY light border.

        Both seem pretty borderline..... also t

      • Wow, another f.lux user. Cheers.

      • Also, where is this alleged 508 contrast predicate?

    • by Qwavel (733416) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:10PM (#44103845)

      I actually think that, when it comes to regulating Internet or media companies, nothing could be more important than this.

      This is the ultimate line in the sand for an advertising company (or a consumer of ads). I'm generally a defender of Google, but if they were to cross this line then - for the first time - I would think they have truly become the evil that they disavowed in their inception.

      And this is about the Internet in general. We need to know whether content is paid or not if we are to preserve a space for the the unpaid. Otherwise, the paid opinion will always win out since it has the money to promote itself.

      • I am trying to understand how this is different from the FTC's rule that you don't print advertisements in magazines that look like regular editorial content.

        Other than "...on a computer!" of course.

    • by ackthpt (218170) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:20PM (#44103993) Homepage Journal

      Google never indicated, to me at least, what was in the search results. I don't see how it could be deceptive.

      And even if it was, does that matter, since I don't pay Google one red cent for the service?

      Perhaps this will make Google results more useful. I'm rather fed up with doing a search and getting all this garbage up front which has nothing to do with the search, but tries to lure me to some business or review site. Ever notice how Urban Spoon and Yelp show up first, even when the site you are looking for has their own website?

      Long-time users of Google may agree here, the results are becoming less useful as time goes by, obviously because paid or revenue producing pages are promoted over utility.

    • You're paying Google with information.
    • You may not pay, but advertisers who use Google AdWords sure as hell are paying through the nose for the deceptive mixing of ads and organic search results. It's deceptive because only a faint light-gray "Sponsored results" notice, in tinyprint, and a *slightly* colored background, separate the paid ads and the organic results.

      What it leads to, is people searching for one thing, Google throwing in ads for something only-somewhat relevant, and the user clicking on the ad thinking it's an actual search resu
  • by sinij (911942) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:27PM (#44103299) Journal
    I especially dislike Google's 'light pink' sponsored links that not every screen would render in a different color. There is no way this isn't intentional.
  • I might not notice the ads are trying to sell me targlferfs instead. I could easily buy the wrong thing because, as an average consumer, I'm a complete idiot!
    • by game kid (805301)

      You're still a complete idiot. Everyone knows that thingamabobs have more soluble fiber than both of them, and no late fees or phoning home. You'll never see them pass AdWords muster, though.

  • Ouch. This is going to leave a mark. (Not that I'm unhappy about it.)
    • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:55PM (#44103667) Homepage

      Right. Google Shopping was originally a price comparison service. There was no charge for being listed. Then it was changed to an paid ad service. All the links on it changed to Google ad links. Our Ad Limiter [adlimiter.com] browser add-on, which hides all but one Google ad per search result, then started limiting the number of shopping results displayed. We finally allowed more ads to show through on explicit Google shopping pages.

      Now, Google Shopping results have changed again, so that they look like real search results. They even have additional Google ads, with the light tan background. But in reality, every result on a Google Shopping page is a paid ad.

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        Which is why I block ALL ad's on every computer I touch. I have installed adblock plus on every single computer I have to service or use. Until advertisers get scruples, I'm blocking it for everyone I can. To this date it is about 450 people and counting that no longer see ad's online because of me, I hope to hit 1000.

        • by faedle (114018)

          If you are doing this without the knowledge and consent of the user you are almost as bad as what you are fighting.

  • by ncohafmuta (577957) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:34PM (#44103405)
    not just search engine results, but identify them from even a website's local content. how many times have you gone to a site to download a file and had to figure out which button was the real download button?
    • by dgatwood (11270)

      And can we please, please, please get a similar demand for Facebook?

      • by rnturn (11092)

        ``please get a similar demand for Facebook''

        Indeed... Isn't the right-most column of your Facebook news feed page enough real estate for ads without having to sprinkle them in with the updates that you want to read? I don't recall noticing ads within my timeline. At least not yet. It'll be time to begin raising Holy Hell when that happens.

  • by zamboni1138 (308944) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:34PM (#44103407)

    You mean setting the advertisement background color to #fefefe instead of #ffffff isn't good enough for the Feds?

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:35PM (#44103415) Homepage

    That requirement sounds reasonable. Google used to work that way: you had highlighted boxes at the top and on the right that contained the paid placements, and the unhighlighted regular search results in the body of the page. There's no technical reason it can't be done that way now. Lots of business reasons maybe, but no technical ones which is all the FTC should be caring about.

    That doesn't mean the FTC should be unreasonably interfering in a search engines' business. But saying the search engine has to clearly indicate which results it's being paid to show people is hardly unreasonable.

  • by rsborg (111459)

    Though it's been quite stellar for years, ever since the DoubleClick acquisition, Google's DNA has become more spammy [1]. Not that Bing is any saint [2], and Microsoft has it's sordid history with not showing "linux" search results (before Bing days).

    This kind of intervention from big bad government might do something to keep the search engines from devolving into glorified billboards.

    [1] http://www.businessinsider.com/google-is-blurring-the-lines-between-ads-and-search-results-2012-4 [businessinsider.com]
    [2] http://googleblog [blogspot.com]

    • by jader3rd (2222716)

      This kind of intervention from big bad government might do something to keep the search engines from devolving into glorified billboards.

      Why should the government be in a position to prevent this? Companies should be allowed to devolve all they want.

  • Given that this isn't being broadcast in a one to many network, and that it's not interfering with communication infrastructure, why does the FCC have authority to do something like this?
  • What ticks me off about search is the number of hits that lead one to yet another search engine.
  • Don't you feel great about the fact that YOU are busting your ass so that the federal government can over-pay a bunch of useless bureaucrats to conduct studies and domineer over search services?

    Tell you what feds, quit stealing from me and I'll figure out how to avoid the horrible perils of advertisements in my search results on my own.

  • Physicians for decades now have been allowed to take money from drug manufacturers and prescribe those drugs to patients without informing those patients that a cheaper or a generic drug is just as effective. No federal agency (FTC, FDA, FBI) or professional organization (ie AMA) has stepped in to even investigate this common practice.

    Advertising in the doctor's office office has been soaring, with posters on the wall and flyers handed to patients hawking everything from prescription drugs and vitamins to

  • Google created a color tan that very, very easily disappears at any screen with a remotely poor viewing angle. It's a very unique color that web designers specifically know not to use for that exact reason. That's why incredibly stupid people keep clicking on the results or even reading or considering them after doing a google search. They always claim they can't see the box and can't tell the difference.

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