Earlier this week, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it had sent letters to all search engine operators reminding them to continue to distinguish between paid advertisements and natural search results. The letters reinforce guidance and rules established in 2002. The letters said, in part:
"...After the 2002 Search Engine Letter was issued, search engines embraced the letter’s guidance and distinguished any paid search results or other advertising on their websites. Since then, however, we have observed a decline in compliance with the letter’s guidance. Although the ways in which search engines retrieve and present results, and the devices on which consumers view these results, are constantly evolving, the principles underlying the 2002 Search Engine letter remain the same: consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party. Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers..."
The letters cited results from a 2005 Pew Research Center survey about search engine users:
"Some 45% of searchers said they would stop using a search engine if they didn’t make it clear that some results were paid or sponsored."
There are many more interesting results from that same 2005 survey:
"... some 38% of those who have used a search engine are aware that there are two different kinds of search results, some that are paid or sponsored and some that are not. The remaining 62% are not aware of this practice. Data from this survey show identical numbers from those collected two and a half years earlier; that is, there has been no overall change in users’ understanding of how search systems work."
And, perhaps more importantly -- the users that are aware can't always tell the differences between paid and natural search results:
"... Among the 38% of internet users who are aware of the practice, some 47% of searchers say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not. This represents about one in six of all internet searchers. An almost equal number, 45%, say they are not always able to tell."
The letters also discuss ways, such as labels and visual design, the search engines can distinguish between paid and natural search results.
Kudos to the FTC for looking out for the interests of consumers. It is sad that the search engine industry chooses to operate in a manner where such a warning is needed. It says a lot about the desire to bend or ignore the rules during its rush for profits.
The 2012 Pew Internet survey about search engine users found interesting results about privacy:
"73% of search users supported a statement that they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they feel it is an invasion of privacy... 65% of search users supported a statement that it’s a bad thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank future search results... 68% of internet users agree with a statement that they are not okay with targeted advertising because they don’t like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed... 66% of search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information..."
If you don't like being tracked or your searches collected by search engines, there is an alternative.