The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been reaching out to major search engine companies like Google and Microsoft in an effort to bring attention to the problem of distinguishing sponsored search results (advertising) from natural, organic search results. As someone who predominantly uses Google, I recently made the mistake of haphazardly clicking on the first result that popped up. It wasn’t until I examined the page that I had been brought to that I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be. Moreover, although it was related to what I had searched, it was definitely not related enough to be the very first link on my search page. Upon returning to Google
I realized that this link had a very faint highlight behind it and a very faint “Sponsored Links” label next to it, both which could be easily overlooked (see Figure 1).
The FTC has asked search engines to start using clearer visuals to make their sponsored links known. They note that smaller search engines have more incentive to blend sponsored search results with organic search results because paid search results are a revenue boost. The leaders of the search engine industry like Google and Bing are less affected by complying with sponsored search guidelines.
The FTC is not currently regulating the sponsored search market, but has the intention of protecting customers and preventing them from being deceived. It would appear as though the sponsored search market is potentially very beneficial for search engines, but not particularly useful for consumers. Personally, I rarely find the sponsored links useful.
There must be a better way to align the interests of search engines and consumers in an effort to create a better searching experience for everyone and bringing customers closer to the content they are looking for.