Back in 2002, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection sent a letter to search engine websites, advising them on how to avoid deceptive advertising practices.  Over ten years later, they just sent websites a short refresher course.

The Bureau recently sent another letter reiterating its commitment to supervising search engines and the ads they display.  Weary of consumer confusion, it wants these websites to clearly separate natural search results, based on relevancy to the search, and paid advertisements.

In complying with the letter’s guidelines, search engines, websites with search functions, and other web-based platforms should take note of two major design elements for their results page: visual cues and text labels.

First, if search engines separate ads from natural results by giving the ads a shaded background, then the visibility – or “luminosity” – of that background must be clearly distinguishable from the background used for natural search results.  Search engines should make sure that the difference in background hues is noticeable on different types of devices and in different lighting conditions.  If a border line is used to separate the ads, it must be a clear and prominent border that is visible on different devices and in different lighting conditions.

Second, search engines may use text labels to separate the ads from the search results.  In addition to using large text, the Bureau recommends that it be located either immediately before the ad or at the top left corner of an ad box.  The letter specifically recommends against placing the text label on the right side of the ad box because of consumer studies that show the right side of the screen receives less attention.

As for social media platforms and apps, the Bureau has recommendations for you too.  The letter states that these companies must clearly indicate to users when content is advertising.  For example:

If a social network were to stream recommended restaurants based on what a particular consumer’s social contacts have enjoyed, it should clearly distinguish as advertising any information feeds included or prioritized based in whole or in part on payments from a third party.

The Bureau’s latest letter reiterates its commitment to keeping an eye on search engines, as well as other web platforms capable of presenting ads based on consumer inputs or behaviors.  As more and more websites, apps, and social media platforms use search functions that trigger ad placements, companies must be aware of the FTC’s guidelines for how to present those ads to consumers.


*John Mavretich is a Venable summer associate and not admitted to practice law.