WSJ: Search Engines Ignoring FTC Rules About Labeling Search Ads

Article asserts search engines intentionally deceiving consumers.


The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has implicitly issued a challenge to the FTC. Covering alleged non-compliance with the FTC’s 2013 directive to improve the demarcation between ads and content, the WSJ reports that paid ads have become more difficult to distinguish from “organic” results over time.

Using third-party experts, the article asserts that paid search ads in the last couple of years have become nearly indistinguishable from organic content. The claim is that search engines are effectively thumbing their noses at the regulatory body. Below are two strong, representative quotes that illustrate the tone of the article:

“Consumers are being tricked,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group.

“Google is still trying to deceive consumers,” says Jakob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group, a consultancy that focuses on how people interact with websites. The search engines “are trying to make their ads look as much like regular content as they can,” says Mr. Nielsen. As a result, he says, “you can rest assured they are getting more clicks” on ads.

Danny Sullivan is also quoted describing the FTC as “a toothless tiger.”

Representatives from Google, Bing and Yahoo all issued variations on the same statement: we’re following the rules and distinguishing ads and content clearly. However, various user surveys have periodically indicated that many people either don’t notice ads or are potentially confused about which results are ads.

The 2013 FTC letter (embedded below) calls for visual and textual cues to clearly distinguish ads and organic content. It claims that compliance has ebbed since guidelines were first issued in 2002.

The WSJ article presents “then and now” graphics of search results pages showing the changes in how ads are being labeled and identified. (This paid-organic delineation is even more of a problem with “native advertising.”)

The question is: what, if anything, is the FTC now willing to do to enforce its guidelines?


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