Corporate Eye

U.S. Federal Trade Commission Tells Search Engines to Differentiate Ads

computer mouseIn a letter to search engines and nearly 20 companies providing search tools related to shopping, travel, and so on, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is calling for search engines to better differentiate ads from organic search results.

Of course, this isn’t a new requirement. However, research found that the shading and other formatting used to offset ad results from organic search results has gotten a bit lighter of late, making those paid search results at the top of the page blend in with other results on the page, particularly on mobile devices where color settings can be quite different than the traditional desktop screen.

In its letter, the FTC doesn’t make any new requirements but simply reiterates that ads must be clearly distinguishable from natural results from consumers’ perspectives. There should be no room for confusion, and search engines are given the flexibility to design the paid results distinction in any way they want — as long as it’s very obvious to consumers. The FTC encourages using darker shading for paid results backgrounds and offsetting paid results with borders as well as using text to clearly mark paid search results.

Furthermore, the FTC reminds online advertisers to review its .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising Guide. This document was released in March 2013, and it’s filled with all of the information a marketer needs to understand when displaying digital ads on U.S. search properties as well as on sites targeting U.S. consumers.

For example, the document provides guidelines for digital advertising that ensure all requirements related to offering clear and conspicuous disclosure are met, including:

  • Proximity and placement
  • Prominence
  • Distracting factors in ads
  • Repetition
  • Multimedia messages and campaigns
  • Understandable language

The FTC .com Disclosures guide also includes 26 pages of examples. Every marketer should read it and understand what is required to stay in compliance and create the best consumer experience possible. After all, deceptive advertising (including providing ineffective disclosures in your digital advertising) can do more damage to your brand and long-term business growth than losing a small number of potential click-throughs. Do you agree?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Image: Ramasamy Chidambaram

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.