On June 24, 2013, in a series of letters to major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Ask.com, as well as to specialized search engines, the FTC issued updated guidance to maintain clear disclosures to public regarding paid advertisements in search results.
Advertising disclosures need to be clear and prominent.
Consumers assume that search results reflect the most relevant results. When results appear because the advertiser has paid the search engine for, say, prominent placement, that placement could be deceptive to consumers if they are unaware of the commercial relationship between the advertiser and the search engine.
They’re giving the search engines some leeway with this, and they state that “any method may be used, so long as it is noticeable and understandable to consumers.” This however doesn’t prevent them from giving some tips.
Here is how the FTC thinks that Google, Yahoo! and Bing should do things differently.
Provide clearer visual cues surrounding their ads. The current shading is too light in their opinion and the it is difficult to differentiate the two. Below areand their recommended specifications for a proper visualoff set:
Advertising shouldn’t be set off simply by shading and an outline. Advertisements should have easily distinguishable text labels.
The FTC asserts that text labels must be used in addition to the visual cues as a search engine may use to distinguish advertising. Text labels must:
The FTC is basically letting the search engines know that their shading and text has gotten too nondescript, and they’ve been able to realize that consumers are less likely to notice when an ad is an ad.
There’s also a footnote in the letter that has to be somewhat validating for those who’ve been preaching the gospel of mobile.
It looks like the year of mobile is finally here! If the FTC is recognizing the value of a mobile campaign, it’s a safe bet that mobile has made it to the main stage. It seems like mobile devices are a bigger offender in their eyes than desktops, so look for changes in that platform. It’ll be an interesting few months for mobile advertising, what with campaigns getting enhanced and the shading of the ads almost certainly set to change.
In designing web pages, search engines … should ensure that any visual cues used to distinguish advertising, such as background shading, are sufficiently visible on both mobile devices and desktop computers. A search engine can indeed at a minimum determine whether a web page will be displayed on a mobile device as opposed to desktop computer… Consequently, we believe that search engines should consider using web pages of different luminosities for mobile devices and desktop computers.
Before closing the letter, the FTC offers a bit of shaming to the engines for their decreasingly relaxed emphasis on users knowing when an ad is an ad.
Search engines have reduced the font size of some text labels to identify top ads and other advertising and often locate these labels in the top right-hand corner of the shaded area or ‘ad block,’ as is the case with top ads. Consumers may not as readily notice the labels when placed in the top right-hand corner, especially when the labels are presented in small print and relate to more than one result.
Ads are their revenue stream, and they’re going to do what they can to maximize that. But things are going to look different.
How this going to affect us:
The FTC cites something in their letter that we already know to be true. People just don’t like ads. The clearer the indication that something is an ad, the higher the likelihood that someone with distaste for marketing professionals will avoid clicking. I think that PLAs are doing so well right now because it’s easy to overlook that they’re ads. They just look like regular listings at first pass.
We’re already at a disadvantage with these devices, as only the top two placements show above the organic listings. What’s going to happen to historically higher CTRs in mobile if the layout changes drastically? That seems like the area where the FTC was the most concerned, so I anticipate that’s where there’s going to be the most upheaval. I mentioned it before, but it’s worth stressing again: mobile will most likely be affected in a big way.
Different ad real estate
Will Google shift where they place their ad blocks? Could bottom ads go away at some point? Bing’s practice of showing the same ad above and below organic results will surely be affected in some way. Now that ads are supposed to be clearly demarcated, what are the engines going to do to goose CTR as much as possible? Google seems to be always playing with display URLs and where to place them, but could we see more radical ad formats are in our future? What can they do to entice clicks on what makes them money while complying with the new guidelines?