FTC On Search Engine Disclosure: Aware Of Issues, No Further Comment

In July, I wrote the US Federal Trade Commission asking for it to review whether search engines are complying with paid listing disclosure guidelines it created in 2002, since it appeared these were being ignored. After two months, I finally got a response. The FTC is aware of the issues but didn’t have more to say at the moment.

I sent my original letter on June 10, then followed up with the FTC a month later in July after not hearing back. After another month, I tried again in mid-August. This time a response came back:

The Commission staff is aware of the issues you raise, and we have carefully reviewed your letter, including your recommendation that we update our 2002 letters, as well as articles you’ve written on search engines’ changes in presentation of search results.

At this time, however, I am not able to provide you with any more specific information about our activities.

The FTC also apologized for the delay. Apparently, different departments within the agency thought another department was getting back to me. Instead, no one did.

I’m delayed myself getting this update posted, as I was off for part of August plus swamped with some other stories. But that’s the news so far. I did try to get more information, in particular:

  • Are there plans or discussions to actually review the guidelines or the current state of disclosures?
  • Is there a current sense of whether disclosures are properly being done?

I was told there was no further information that could be provided.

I also owe a follow-up survey of the various search engines out there, to see if they support an FTC review. I know Google does (as the second article below covers), but others have been silent so far. Stay tuned — I’m working my way back to it.

My previous stories on this topic:

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | Google: Antitrust | Legal: Regulation | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://twitter.com/todayztrendz David Smith

    What are the actual ramifications if the FTC adhere to your own advice? My guess is nothing will change anyway – Google go on their merry way whatever minor change to some obscure guideline. A pyrrhic victory for you Danny, but nothing will change anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/helen.carpenter.984 Helen Carpenter

    I used this service when i started my business website, it helped me to come up from 34th position to
    5th position in google keyword tool. Site is: http://www.malshiseo.com/

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It’s the FTC’s advice, not mine. The agency created rules that it wanted search engines to follow. It seems not to be enforcing or caring about those rules. The ramifications of that so far is that the search engines are happy to ignore them, also. Ultimately, that means consumers aren’t served well, since the agency in charge of protecting those consumers isn’t upholding the very rules it created. Alternatively, the space may have matured to the degree that the rules are no longer deemed necessary — but if so, they should be taken off the books.

  • Alan

    As with all guide lines they are there to be ignored.

  • Alan

    You keep using the word rules. They are not rules just guidelines. The difference between rules and guidelines is that rules you follow no matter what, guidelines you follow if it is of benefit. Obviously there is no benefit to following the guidelines any more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/the.nathaniel.bailey Nathaniel Bailey

    Unfortunately that’s life in the world of search, so lets hope that Danny’s emails to the FTC will get their backsides in gear in trying to enforce search engines to follow the guidelines which where created to give a better experience for searchers!

    I do agree that it’s unlikely much will change if anything in terms of search engines not making changes to follow the guidelines but hay, if anyone can put some pressure on them to do so it would be Danny lol :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/holly.jahangiri Holly Jahangiri

    You say “no benefit,” but don’t you really mean “no negative consequences”? Just as there’s a difference between “rules” and “guidelines,” so is there a difference between rewards and punishments. Guidelines have no teeth; that much is true. The benefit to following them is avoidance of rules that would make things tougher.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    The are guidelines that effectively are rules — the FTC was pretty clear it wanted these followed.

  • Alan

    and it is pretty clear Google is not planning on following them. So they aren’t rules but this is arguing semantics. What we have here is a company that doesn’t really care about “rules”. One step closer to being evil.. or more paranoid as you call it.

  • Alan

    double negatives are the domain of the pseudo intellectuals.

  • Grant Crowell

    Danny Sullivan, It’s still very peculiar that for someone who complains so much about others not following FTC guidelines, you and your own publication aren’t adhering to the FTC’s own dot com disclosure guidelines on material relationships with your guest bloggers. You’re having many of them speaking at your SMX East conference which is taking place tomorrow through Thursday, yet you and your publication refuse to disclose that in their posts on the Search Engine Land site. Whether or not a guest blogger gets paid, it still constitutes a material relationship that requires clear and conspicuous disclosure. The FTC’s own press officer, Elizabeth Lordan, expressed stated this several times which you’ve been made aware of repeatedly, yet your rebuttal is that you still believe publications like yours are exempt from these rules. Maybe you, Google, and the shopping search engines have more in common than you might think? http://www.blogworld.com/2012/07/14/disclose-this-how-the-ftc-has-left-bloggers-and-publishers-dazed-and-confused/

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    Rules, guidelines… Doesn’t matter since they can independently fine companies and businesses. The bottom line is that we all need to absolutely transparent on every tweet, update, blog post or comment… Something the SEO industry continues to ignore with every back linking scheme devised. It shouldn’t take the FTC to stop an industry from cheating.

  • Grant Crowell

    Instead of waiting around for the FTC and continuing to be frustrated, how about doing something actually productive. This can include supporting an independent usability study involving actual consumer testing. This would be funded by each search engine as well as each online marketing publication (including this one) for the study to be conducted on their own site. I’ve already spoken with several UX and Information Architecture professionals who agree that is the best way to produce empirical data you can take back to the FTC. After all, the FTC exists to support consumers first, so work with the consumers you already have.

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