Last June, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued guidelines to U.S.-based search engines regarding how they should disclose paid content to searchers. Periodically, ClickZ's sister site, Search Engine Watch, assesses how well it believes search engines meet those guidelines. The latest assessment was conducted in late May. A summary of results is on the Buying Your Way In chart. This column provides background into how the assessment was done.
The FTC Guidelines
Assessment details below assume you're familiar with the FTC's recommendations. If you're not, consider reading my series that provides an in-depth look at the guidelines. Don't have time to read all that? OK, here's a summary of what the FTC recommended:
Paid placement. The FTC recommended paid placement listings (rank guaranteed for payment) be clearly labeled as ads on the results page. These should be segregated from nonpaid, editorial-style listings. A term such as "Sponsored" is viewed favorably as clear disclosure, while a term such as "Featured" is not.
Paid inclusion. Paid inclusion listings (payment guarantees inclusion but not rank) should be disclosed on a help page. A link to the explanation should be on the results page, in close proximity to paid inclusion listings and with wording that encourages click-through from curious or concerned searchers.
Paid inclusion results typically appear within a editorial listings. Those listing often appear under headings like "Web Results" or "Web Matches." The FTC wants a link near the heading leading to paid inclusion disclosure.
Two examples illustrate what I believe the FTC would like:
In the first, from AOL Search, you see the heading for the editorial results section, Matching Sites, with a disclosure link appearing just below it. "About these results" encourages the curious to click.
In the second example, MSN shows how its About link appears in close proximity to the heading for Web Directory Sites editorial listings. If someone wondered what's in the section, a simple click would reveal more.
Ask Jeeves illustrates what I believe the FTC would not approve of:
Editorial results, which may contain paid inclusion, appear in the Web Results section at the bottom of the screenshot. Yet the link leading to disclosure -- the boxed Editorial Guidelines link at the top -- is well removed from the editorial section. Close proximity is an important part of the guidelines.
The original paid inclusion guidelines suggest editorial results headings use wording indicating some paid content is included. Rather than Web Results, a heading such as Web Pages & Paid Inclusion Results may be preferable. Yet things have changed slightly since the guidelines were released.
Specifically, AlltheWeb worked with the FTC to come up with a heading and link combination that was viewed favorably when released last July:
The FTC liked "what's included." It reasoned combining "what's included" with the Web Pages Found heading provoked click-throughs from consumers interested in learning more.
AlltheWeb originally considered labeling the link "About." I was told the FTC was concerned it wasn't provocative enough. A year later, "About" appears to be the favored disclosure label.
Are search engines that use "About" failing to meet the guidelines? Not necessarily. The FTC never specified language, and discussions with AlltheWeb were informal. The biggest expressed concern was a disclosure link be in close proximity to the heading where paid inclusion results appear.
In the assessment below, search engines passed paid inclusion disclosure primarily based on proximity and prominence of links to disclosure information, not wording used.
Content promotion. The FTC didn't originally address content promotion, in which a portal site might push links for its own content into top results. It later indicated search engines should consider disclosure. For the assessment below, a passing grade was given if content promotion was clearly identified with labeling on the results page or via a nearby link.
AlltheWeb. Paid placement listings are disclosed with the "(sponsored)" tag after their titles. Delineation is a small, thin line from editorial results (it's more pronounced when news content appears -- compare a search for "used cars" with one for "cars"). It could be clearer, but granted the benefit of the doubt. Pass for paid placement.
No paid inclusion disclosure link appears near results that may contain such listings. Searchers could try the help link at the top and bottom of the results page, but they will be disappointed. It brings up a promising Questions regarding paid inclusion link but returns a form for potential advertisers. Following Web Results on the help page yields no paid inclusion information; it instead contains outdated information about paid placement. Fail for paid inclusion.
AlltheWeb was redesigned in March. Earlier, it would have passed paid inclusion. An About link (formerly "what's included") lead to a page that clearly explained use of paid inclusion and paid placement.
AOL Search. Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Links section. An About these results link underneath the section heading clearly explains listings. Pass for paid placement.
Editorial results appear in the Matching Sites section, with a nearby About these results link. Editorial matches don't contain paid inclusion, so there's nothing to disclose. They may contain promotional AOL content links, which are clearly disclosed. Those using the service within AOL see an AOL Keyword label. Pass for content promotion.
AltaVista. Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Matches section or within sidebar boxes under the same heading. A nearby About link clearly explains listings. Pass for paid placement.
Editorial results appear in the "AltaVista found x results" section and contain paid inclusion listings, which a nearby About link discloses. Pass for paid inclusion.
Ask Jeeves. Paid placement listings are shown in disclosed and delineated Featured Sponsor or Sponsored Web Results sections. Pass for paid placement.
Editorial results appear in the Web Results section and contain paid inclusion listings. This is disclosed via the Editorial Guidelines link at the top of the search results page. Qualified pass for paid inclusion. Proximity should be closer to the editorial section. Text on the disclosure page doesn't reflect the wording on the results page, no doubt an oversight due a recent redesign.
Google. Paid placement listings are delineated by colored boxes and disclosed with Sponsored Link tags or appear in the Sponsored Links section. Pass for paid placement.
The need for other search engines to disclose paid inclusion has produced many useful About pages that explain use of both paid inclusion and paid placement. Google has no paid inclusion so never had pressure to build such a page. That appears to be why, when looking through Google's help material, nothing appears to formally explains what exactly "sponsored" links are at Google.
To me, labeling these links "Sponsored" right on the search results page reveals them as ads, satisfying the FTC guidelines. Some additional information in the help area for users, rather than advertisers, might be helpful, too.
HotBot. Paid placement listings are disclosed with the "(sponsored link)" tag that appears after titles or in the Sponsored Links section. However, a paid Start Here link may appear in the top right-hand corner of the search results page. It's not clear it's a paid listing. Most everything else is right, meriting a qualified pass for paid placement.
Why? Lycos says Start Here links will be phased out in the near future. As for paid inclusion, this may happen within the Web Results section when results return from any engine, excepting Google. It's not disclosed via the HotBot help pages, much less via a dedicated page with a close link near the Web Results heading.
Lycos. Everything regarding paid listings at Lycos-owned HotBot holds true here. As for paid inclusion, this may happen within the Web Results section. A nearby info link explains this and possible content promotion. Pass for paid inclusion and content promotion.
MSN Search. Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Sites section. A nearby About link leads to information explaining this (though the pop-up for Travelzoo is annoying). Pass for paid placement.
Paid inclusion may happen in editorial "Web Directory" or "Web Pages" results. Again, a nearby About link leads to more information. Pass for paid inclusion.
Content promotion may occur in the Featured Sites section. A nearby About link explains. Pass for content promotion.
Netscape Search. Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Links section. A nearby About This link leads to a page with further information. However, paid listings also appear in unlabelled sidebar boxes to the right of the search results, causing a fail for paid placement.
Editorial results in the Matching Results section are from Google, which doesn't use paid inclusion.
Content promotion is by Netscape in the Matching Results section. It's disclosed via an About This link near the Matching Sites heading. Pass for content promotion.
Teoma. Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Links section. Pass for paid placement.
Paid inclusion may occur in the Results section. This is not disclosed by a nearby link to information nor any likely link on results pages. Those digging through help pages will finally find disclosure with the unlikely Search with Authority: The Teoma Difference link. Given the difficulty, a fail for paid inclusion disclosure.
Yahoo Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated Sponsored Results and More Sponsored Results sections and sidebar boxes labeled "Advertisements." A nearby What's this link leads to a further explanation. Pass for paid placement.
Editorial results appear in the Top 20 Web Results section. Paid inclusion, in the form of paid submission, is within these results. Until recently, this was disclosed via an About These Results link in the search box at the top of the results page. That link, and the page it lead to, appear to have been lost during Yahoo's recent redesign. By digging through Yahoo's help files, disclosure information can eventually be found. Given the difficulty, Yahoo fails paid inclusion disclosure.
Yahoo's content promotion is explained in a very good guide to how the results page is compiled. When last reviewed, it was deemed "Inside Yahoo" was good enough, so Yahoo still passes. It would be nice to access information about Inside Yahoo directly from the search results page, though.
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.
March 19, 2014