The Federal Trade Commission issued an advisory letter to 24 Internet search engines that suggest the companies should more clearly distinguish between paid advertisements and organic search results based on relevancy.
“The disclosure techniques you use for advertising should keep pace with innovations in how and where you deliver information to consumers,” the statement advises the Internet search companies.
The letter was sent to general-purpose search engines including Google, Yahoo, AOL, Bing, as well as 20 of the most heavily trafficked sites that specialize in shopping and travel that display ads to consumers, according to a statement released by the FTC.
The Tuesday letter was the first update the FTC has issued to online search engines since its 2002 Search Engine Letter that advised companies about the potential to deceive consumers if paid search results were not clearly marked. Companies such as Google, Yahoo, AOL and Bing currently use background shading and side-bar columns to distinguish advertising.
“In recent years, the features traditional search engines use to differentiate advertising from natural search results have become less noticeable to consumers,” the FTC letter reads. “Nearly half of searchers did not recognize top ads as distinct from natural search results,” the statement continues, referencing a 2012 Consumer Ad Awareness survey.
The latest statement also emphasizes that it is imperative for search companies to be aware of how advertising shows up in search queries on mobile devices as well as in searches made with voice recognition software like Apple’s Siri.
The FTC did not directly reference any companies that did not comply with their new recommendations.
Google is by far the most preferred search engine in the United States. According to a 2012 Pew Report, 83 percent of search engine users use Google.
In January 2013, the FTC closed an anti-trust review against Google that examined whether or not Google favored the company’s own products in search engine results.
On Tuesday, the FTC also began a preliminary anti-trust investigation into Google’s recent $1 billion purchase of the street-mapping application, Waze.