The Federal Trade Commission recently sent letters to a number of search engine companies regarding what the FTC perceives to be “a decline in compliance” with the FTC’s 2002 guidelines requiring that search engine results clearly and prominently distinguish natural search results from paid advertising. In the letter, the FTC notes that the failure to properly distinguish natural results from paid advertising could create a potential for consumers to be deceived in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.
Search engines sell “keywords” to vendors who want their product advertising to be displayed when a person searches for a term containing that keyword. A law firm, for example, might be willing to pay a search engine to prominently display the firm name and website link when someone searches for “law firms New York.” Search results often contain both natural results generated by the search method used as well as paid results. The problem, as the FTC sees it, is that consumers might not be able to tell the difference.