US consumer watchdog wants sponsored search returns clearly marked

US trading authorities have ordered the world’s most popular search engines to clearly identify search returns sponsored by advertisers

US trading authorities have ordered the world’s most popular search engines to identify clearly results that have been sponsored by advertisers

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is concerned about the potential for consumers to be deceived and wants them to be able to distinguish easily between sponsored and natural search results.

“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,” the FTC said in a letter to search companies.

“In recent years, the features traditional search engines use to differentiate advertising from natural search results have become less noticeable to consumers.”

The letter has been sent to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Bing, AOL, Blekko, DuckDuckGo and 17 other specialist search engines, according to the Guardian.

The FTC said a survey found the tendency for search engines to put sponsored returns immediately above natural results has led more than half of users not to recognise them as distinct as adverts.

The trade body wants search engines to ensure all forms of advertising are clearly identified by labeling them as “sponsored” or “ad”, or shading any advertising result with a different background colour, or separating advertising from the natural results.

The letter calls on search engines to review their methods displaying search results and make any necessary adjustments to ensure advertising is disclosed clearly and prominently.

The FTC said the disclosure techniques search engines use should also keep pace with innovations in how and where they deliver information to consumers.

Google said clear labelling and disclosure of paid search were important and "we've always strived to do that as our products have evolved".

The FTC letter comes just five months after Google reach a settlement agreement with the watchdog to change the way it presents some search results and runs its search advertising.

The agreement ended a 19-month investigation by the FTC into Google’s business practices.

At the time, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said no evidence had been found that Google manipulated its search results to harm competition.

However, European authorities pressed for a legally binding agreement to changes in April, including labeling search results from Google’s own services expected to be implemented later this year.

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