The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent letters to two dozen search engine companies urging them to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results, noting that in recent years paid search results have become less distinguishable from advertising.

The letters are meant to update guidance published more than a decade ago in 2002, as the FTC notes in its latest letter that it has “observed a decline in compliance with the [2002] letter’s guidance”.

Other than general-purpose search engines including Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Ask.com, Blekko and DuckDuckGo, the FTC also sent letters to 17 of the most heavily trafficked search engines specializing in the areas of shopping, travel, and local business.

The FTC said that in recent years, the features that search engines use to differentiate advertising from natural search results have become less noticeable to consumers, especially in cases where the advertisements are located directly above the search results. The regulator warned that a failure to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be a deceptive practice:

Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers.

The FTC urged search engines to make sure any labels and visual cues used to distinguish advertising from natural search results are “sufficiently noticeable and understandable to consumers”.

It noted that increasingly, background shading used by search engines to distinguish between advertising and search results has been “significantly” less visible and may not be seen clearly by consumers. It said search engines should either use more prominent shading with a clear outline or make a prominent border to distinctly set off top ads or other advertising results integrated into the natural search results. 

The FTC also said some text labels used to identify top ads have seen their font size being reduced and they are often located in the top right-hand corner, which consumers may not easily notice. It said search engines should have text labels with unambiguous language to explicitly convey if a search result is advertising, and such text labels should be placed immediately in front of an advertising result or in the top left-hand corner of an ad block, in a font that is large and visible enough for consumers to notice it.

With e-commerce booming in recent years, many search engines have incorporated ads as a steady source of revenue. Earlier this year, Microsoft unveiled Bing for Schools that stripped out all ads from the search engine due to Microsoft’s belief that schools “are for learning and not selling”.

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