Search engines accused of making ads deceptive

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Google: the world's largest search engine
Google: the world's largest search engine

Despite warnings from the FTC, Google and other search engines continue make it difficult for consumers to identify paid-for content, report concludes

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warned 22 search engines, including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, that they needed to more clearly differentiate between advertisements and unsponsored content.

The response from the search engines was a collective "meh."

According to a study by online marketing consultant Ben Edelman, Google, the biggest search engine in the world, is making it more difficult to tell what is and isn’t an ad. Sponsored links on Google search are typically labeled "Ad" or "Sponsored" and are placed in shaded boxes or below a border. But Edelman’s research revealed that Google is putting those words in smaller type and obscuring the words with shading. This leads to more users unknowingly clicking on paid for ads.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the shading on Ad words on Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing are nearly imperceptible, too.

"Consumers are being tricked," Robert Weissman, president of  consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, told the Journal.

More people clicking on sponsored links means more ad revenue for the search engines. Because advertisers will spend just over $55 billion on search ads this year, there is a lot of pressure on search engines to give them a strong return on that investment. That gives search engines plenty of incentive to ignore the FTC warning, which many of them are doing, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Business Insider reports that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing all released statements saying each company is in compliance.

The FTC established guidelines for search advertisements in 2002. Last June, the FTC’s associate director of advertising practices, Mary Engle, wrote a letter to 22 search engines, warning each that it was not in compliance.

"In recent years, the features traditional search engines use to differentiate advertising from natural search results have become less noticeable to consumers, especially for advertising located immediately above the natural results ("top ads")," Engle wrote.

Engle warned the offending search engines that they needed to take action to make paid, linked content easier for consumers to recognize. She made it clear she believes the search engines are blurring the lines on purpose.

The response from search engines? No changes, so far.

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