Google, Other Search Engines Put on Notice by FTC About Online Ad Labels
Steps also need to be taken to ensure that future innovations in online search continue to take these issues into consideration so they remain a visible part of future search engines, wrote Engle. "Indeed, in the past few years, the growth of social media and mobile apps, and the introduction of voice assistants on mobile devices, have offered consumers new ways of getting information," she wrote. "Regardless of the precise form search may take in the future, the long-standing principle of making advertising distinguishable from natural results will remain applicable." By reminding the search vendors of their responsibilities under the existing FTC rules, the agency hopes to keep the issue always on the minds of search engine employees, wrote Engle. "Search engines provide invaluable benefits to consumers," she wrote. "At the same time, consumers should be able to easily distinguish natural search results from advertising that search engines deliver. Accordingly, we encourage you to review your websites or other methods of displaying search results, including your use of specialized search, and make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising. In addition, as your business may change in response to consumers' search demands, the disclosure techniques you use for advertising should keep pace with innovations in how and where you deliver information to consumers." In a statement to the Reuters news agency, Google said that clear labeling and disclosure of paid search are important to the company and that it has "always strived to do that as our products have evolved," the Guardian reported. In May, reports surfaced that Google is the subject of a new, fledgling antitrust probe by the FTC in connection with how the company is selling and marketing its online ads, which are at the heart of Google's annual revenue. The inquiry focuses on tools acquired when Google bought display ad company DoubleClick in 2007, according to earlier reports from Reuters.Google could have been hit with a government sledgehammer in connection with charges of anticompetitive behaviors against rivals, but instead the search giant came away with a much less damaging fate, which was heavily criticized by rivals in the tech market, including Microsoft. In the January agreement with the FTC, Google stipulated that it would end some of its past business practices that could stifle competition in the markets for popular devices such as smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles, as well as the market for online search advertising. Under a binding settlement with the FTC, Google will allow competitors access "on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms to patents on critical standardized technologies needed to make popular devices such as smartphones, laptop and tablet computers and gaming consoles," according to the FTC. Google also agreed to stop misappropriating—or scraping—the content of its rivals for use in its own specialized search results, and to drop contractual restrictions that impaired the ability of small businesses to advertise on competing search advertising platforms, according to the FTC. In April, the search giant finally resolved antitrust allegations in Europe by agreeing to improve how it labels ads in its search results and how it displays links to competitors, according to a previous eWEEK story. European regulators had been investigating antitrust allegations against the company since 2010. Under the deal, Google will provide better labeling of its own promoted content and will improve how it displays links to competitors' online ads. Under the deal, Google didn't have to change the algorithm that produces its search results.
In January, Google received what was essentially a hand slap from the FTC after a 19-month investigation into prior allegations that the company had been manipulating its search algorithms to favor Google's results over competitors. The FTC ruled that not enough evidence existed to prove such allegations. Instead, the company entered into a voluntary agreement with the FTC to change some of its business practices.