Search Engine Standards, Please!

By Heather Lloyd-Martin, Guest Writer

The Summer 2002 Search Engine Strategies conference brought together a senior attorney from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) provider, and a Search Committee co-chair from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). The topic: Ethical and clear search marketing standards for the SEO industry and the search engines.

One shout for standards takes its aim at the summit: the major search engines. Boser, owner of an Internet marketing consultancy, stated that search engines need to establish fair and consistent policies. For instance, spam guidelines can differ across paid-inclusion partners, and per-click paid inclusion isn't always disclosed.

Boser related examples of his personal search engine experiences while sharing his suggestions. His propositions included:

  • Create fair and consistent spam reporting policies. Often, spam reports sent to search engines go unanswered, and there's no way to tell if a report was received. Furthermore, according to Boser, whether a claim is followed up upon may depend if the complainant is a paid advertiser with the search engine.

  • Establish a formal site review system. Search engine engineers should provide feedback, helping site owners and Webmasters understand why they're not listed.

  • Stop "monetization targeting." Boser reported an instance where a client's site suddenly disappeared from an engine, despite its strong positioning. Soon after, the client received a call from a search engine representative, explaining that their site was dropped for spamming. The representative reportedly implied that paying for advertising would help get their site back into the engine.

  • Institute fair and consistent trademark dispute policies. Search engines may inadvertently sell a trademarked name as a keyword. Boser reported that small companies whose trademarks are violated have little luck lodging a complaint with the search engines. However, large businesses have an easier time getting their trademark removed from the keyword pool.

    "If people know who you are, [your trademark” can get removed," says Boser.

FTC - Paid Listings Disclosure is Easy as the "4-P's"

Beverly J. Thomas, Senior Attorney for the FTC's Internet Advertising Program, echoed Boser's "full disclosure for paid ads" suggestion. In her discussion titled "Clear and Conspicuous Online Disclosures for Search Engines," Thomas discussed the FTC's response to Commercial Alert's complaint filed July, 2001.

The FTC recommended in its July 2002 letter to search engines that paid-ranking search results should be distinguished from non-paid results with clear and conspicuous disclosure. Furthermore, the use of paid inclusion should be clearly and conspicuously explained and disclosed.

Thomas' discussion, based on the FTC's publication "Dot Com Disclosures," demonstrated how online advertising claims (which include search engine disclosures) need to be "clear and conspicuous." In evaluating whether disclosures are clear and conspicuous, Thomas recommended search engines consider the "4-P's"; proximity and placement, and prominence and presentation.

  • Proximity and placement. According to "Dot Com Disclosures," "Proximity increases the likelihood that consumers will see the disclosure and relate it to the relevant claim or product." Any disclosures should appear near the claim and (when possible) on the same screen.

If scrolling is necessary, cues should be used to encourage people to scroll. If a hyperlink points to a disclosure, engines need to clearly convey why the information is important and relevant.

"You should say more than 'disclaimer' or 'click here for more details,'" says Thomas.

Furthermore, the hyperlink style should be consistent throughout the site. "For instance, if hyperlinks usually are underlined in a site, chances are consumers wouldn't recognize italicized text as being a link, and could miss the disclosure," reads the FTC's Dot Com Disclosures.

  • Prominence and presentation. Any disclosure should be prominently displayed. "You can't put white text on a yellow background," says Thomas. "If consumers can see the claim, they should be able to see the disclosure."

An example of acceptable prominence and presentation is Google's Sponsored Site links. The links are clearly labeled and set apart from the free listings. "Google clearly notes that its paid placements are "Sponsored Links," and it will not put paid ads within its search results," reads the Commercial Alert complaint.

Speaking the Same SEO Language Through Standard Definitions

How will marketers understand and define the difference between "paid placement" and "paid inclusion?" David Karnstedt, Co-Chair of the Search Engine Committee for the IAB, and Senior Vice President and General Manager of Direct Business for Overture, is helping to develop clear definitions and standards. This way, the definitions of "paid inclusion," "site submission" and "paid placement" are understood and accepted throughout the marketing community.

Karnstedt also discussed current Search Engine Committee goals and projects. The Committee is creating an amendment to the AAAA standard Terms and Conditions to include search. Other IAB goals are the development of creative standards for search, and the development of case studies that articulate the value of search media buys.

Will the search community and the search engines ever agree on standards? Probably. With various groups vying for search standards and clear terminology, established guidelines and language should see implementation.

But for now, one positive start could be clearer lines of communication between the search engines, searchers and site owners. "All search engines should hire staff to answer email in a timely matter," said Boser". Additional dialogue and interaction will lead to greater understanding -- and agreed-upon, successful standards.

Heather Lloyd-Martin is the President of SuccessWorks. She is a regular speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, offering expert tips on search engine optimization writing. Contact Heather at

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