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Search Engine Disclosure Ratings: May 2003

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In June 2002, the US Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines to US-based search engines about how they should disclose paid content to searchers. Periodically, Search Engine Watch assesses how well it believes search engines are meeting these guidelines. The latest assessment was done at the end of May 2003. A summary of results is shown on the Buying Your Way In Chart. This page provides further background to how the assessment was done.

The FTC Guidelines

The assessment details below assume a reader is familiar with the FTC's recommendations. If you are not, please consider reading my FTC Recommends Disclosure To Search Engines article from July 2002, which provides an in-depth look at the FTC guidelines. Don't have time to read that long article? OK, here's a summary of what the FTC recommended for paid content.

Paid Placement: The FTC essentially recommended that paid placement listings (where rank is guaranteed for payment) be clearly labeled as ads right on the search results page and further be segregated from non-paid, editorial-style listings. A term such as "Sponsored" was viewed favorably by the FTC as providing clear disclosure that a link was paid for while a term like "Featured" was not.

Paid Inclusion: The FTC essentially recommended that disclosure of paid inclusion listings (where payment guarantees inclusion but not a particular rank) be made via a help page, rather than directly on the search results page itself. However, a link to this explanation did need to be on the search results page, in close proximity to where the paid inclusion listings appear and using wording that would encourage clickthrough from curious or concerned consumers.

Huh? Let's take a longer look. Paid inclusion results typically appear within a search engine's editorial listings. Those editorial listing often appear under headings such as "Web Results" or "Web Matches." For search engines with paid inclusion, the FTC wants near the heading a link that leads to disclosure of paid inclusion.

Here are two examples that illustrate what I believe the FTC would like:

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In the first example, from AOL Search, you see the heading for the editorial results section, "Matching Sites," with a disclosure link appearing just below it. The wording "About these results" would encourage anyone wondering what's in the results to click through, many people would agree.

Similarly, the second example from MSN shows how its "About" link appears in close proximity to the heading for its "Web Directory Sites" editorial listings. If someone was wondering what's in this section, it's a simple click to find out more.

What's bad? Here's an example from Ask Jeeves that shows what I believe the FTC would not like:

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What's wrong? The editorial results, which may contain paid inclusion, appear in the "Web Results" section boxed at the bottom of the screenshot. However, the link that leads to disclosure of paid inclusion -- the boxed "Editorial Guidelines" link at the top of the page -- is well removed from the editorial results section. Close proximity of disclosure links is an important part of the FTC guidelines.

The original paid inclusion guidelines also suggested that the headings for editorial results should use words to reflect that some paid content was within them. For example, rather than saying "Web Results," a heading such as "Web Pages & Paid Inclusion Results" might be seen as better. However, things have changed slightly since the guidelines first came out.

Specifically, AllTheWeb worked with the FTC to come up with a heading and link combination that was seen favorably when released in July 2002:

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The FTC liked the wording "what's included," feeling that in combination with the "Web Pages Found" heading, it served to provoke clickthroughs from consumers who might be interested in learning more about what was listed in the Web Pages Found section, AllTheWeb said at the time.

Originally, AllTheWeb had originally considered labeling the disclosure link "About." However, I was told the FTC was concerned this wasn't provocative enough. Interestingly, nearly a year later, About appears to be the favored label for disclosure links on search engines.

Are those search engines using the word "About" failing to meet the guidelines? Not necessarily. The FTC never said specifically what language it wanted, and the discussions it had with AllTheWeb were informal. In addition, the FTC never told AllTheWeb that using the word "About" wasn't good enough. In fact, the biggest concern expressed was mainly that a disclosure link be in close proximity to the heading where paid inclusion results appear.

Given this, in the assessment section below, search engines were given pass grades for paid inclusion disclosure primarily based on the proximity and prominence of links to disclosure information, rather than the exact wording used.

Content Promotion: The FTC didn't originally address the issue of content promotion, where a portal site might push links for its own content into top results. However, in a follow-up interview, the FTC did indicate that to be safe, search engines should consider providing some disclosure. For purposes of the assessment below, a pass grade was given if content promotion was clearly identified in terms of labeling directly on the search results page or through a nearby disclosure link.

Assessment Details

AllTheWeb

Paid placement listings are disclosed with the "(sponsored)" tag that appears after their titles. Delineation does happen but in the form of a small thin line from editorial results (delineation is more pronounced when news content appears -- compare a search for used cars to cars). Delineation could be clearer, but the benefit of the doubt goes to AllTheWeb. Pass for paid placement.

As for paid inclusion, no disclosure link appears near results that may contain these listing. Some seeking disclosure might try the Help links at the top or bottom of the search results page. Those that do will be disappointed. Following the link brings up a promising-looking Questions regarding paid inclusion link, but this simply brings up a form targeted at potential advertisers. Following the Web Results link yields no information about paid inclusion and has outdated information about paid placement. Fail for paid inclusion.

It should be noted that AllTheWeb redesigned in March. Prior to the redesign, it would have had a pass for paid inclusion. This is because it had an About link (the former "what's included" link) leading to a page that clearly explained the service's use of paid inclusion, as well as paid placement.

AOL Search

Paid placement listings are shown in disclosed and delineated "Sponsored Links" section. In addition, an About these results link underneath the section heading clearly explains these listings. Pass for paid placement.

Editorial results appear in "Matching Sites" section, which has a nearby About these results link. Editorial matches don't contain paid inclusion, so there's nothing to disclose about this. They may contain promotional links to AOL's own content, however. This content promotion is clearly disclosed and those using the service from within AOL even see the "AOL Keyword" label next to these (compare cars on the public service to cars on the internal version). Pass for content promotion.

AltaVista

Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated "Sponsored Matches" section or within sidebar boxes under that heading. In addition, a nearby About link clearly explains these listings. Pass for paid placement. Editorial results appear in the "AltaVista found # results" section and do contain paid inclusion listings. A nearby About link discloses this. Pass for paid inclusion.

Ask Jeeves

Paid placement listings are shown in the disclosed and delineated "Featured Sponsor" or "Sponsored Web Results" sections. Pass for paid placement. Editorial results appear in the "Web Results" section and do contain paid inclusion listings. This is disclosed via the Editorial Guidelines link at the top of the search results page. A qualified pass for paid inclusion, because the proximity should be closer to the editorial section. Text in the disclosure page does not referring to the same wordings used on the search results page, no doubt an oversight due to Ask Jeeves having recently redesigned.

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. Google does not have paid inclusion, so has nothing to disclose here.

Interestingly, the need for other search engines to disclose paid inclusion has produced sometimes useful About pages that explain the use of BOTH paid inclusion and paid placement on their pages. As said, Google has no paid inclusion and so never has had pressure to build such a page. That appears to be why when looking through Google's help material, there appears to be nothing that formally explains to searchers what exactly "sponsored" links are at Google.

To me, the labeling of these links as "Sponsored" right on the search results page makes them self-evidently ads -- and also meet the FTC requirements. Nevertheless, some additional information in the help area for users, rather than advertisers, might be helpful as well.

HotBot

Paid placement listings are disclosed with the "(sponsored link)" tag that appears after their titles or appear 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 is not clear this is a paid listing. As most everything else is right, this is a qualified pass for paid placement. Why not a fail? Lycos says the Start Here links are supposed to be phased out in the very near future. As for paid inclusion, this may happen within the "Web Results" section when results come back from any choice but Google. It is not disclosed for searchers via the HotBot help pages, much less via a dedicated page with a close link near the Web Results heading.

Lycos

Everything above for Lycos-owned HotBot for paid listings is true at Lycos. As for paid inclusion, this may happen within the Web Results section. A nearby info link, explains this, as it also does for 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 also leads to information that explains this (though also being forced to see a 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 information that explains this. Pass for paid inclusion. Content promotion may happen in the Featured Sites section. A nearby About link explains this. Pass for content promotion.

"Featured Sponsor" or "Sponsored Web Results" sections. Pass for paid placement. Editorial results appear in the "Web Results" section and do contain paid inclusion listings. This is disclosed via the Editorial Guidelines link at the top of the search results page. A qualified pass for paid inclusion, because the proximity should be closer to the editorial section. Text in the disclosure page does not referring to the same wordings used on the search results page, no doubt an oversight due to Ask Jeeves having recently redesigned.

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 come from Google, which doesn't use paid inclusion. Content promotion is done by Netscape in the Matching Results section. This is 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, and this is not disclosed by a nearby link to more information nor any likely link shown on the results pages, such as Search Tips. Those digging through the help pages will finally discover disclosure by clicking on 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 page with further explanation. Pass for paid placement. Editorial results appear in the Top 20 Web Results section. Paid inclusion, in the form of paid submission, happens within these results. Until recently, this was disclosed via an About These Results link that appeared in the search box at the top of the results page. That link, and the page it originally 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 for paid inclusion disclosure. Yahoo does content promotion, and this is explained in a very good guide to how its results page is compiled overall. When last reviewed, it was deemed that the "Inside Yahoo" heading was good enough disclosure, so Yahoo still passes for this. However, it would be nice to access the information about the Inside Yahoo section directly from the search results page.


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