FTC wants clearer search engines

Friday, July 12, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- Virtually all the major search engines separate their results into paid and unpaid categories, though the dividing lines are frequently fuzzy.

The Federal Trade Commission wants the search engines to make the distinctions much clearer. Although regulators didn't mention it by name, Google could serve as a role model for complying with the guidelines.

When The Associated Press typed the query "travel San Francisco" into Google in tests conducted Wednesday and Thursday, the results were sorted into two easily understood categories.

Referrals to concierge.com and orbitz.com were identified as "sponsored links" in light green and yellow boxes at the top of the page. On the right, other shaded boxes of "sponsored links" pointed the way to travelworm.com and expedia.com.

Google's objective search results are displayed against plain white background and can be seen without having to scroll down the page. So, too, with alltheweb.com and lycos.com, although for these sites, the "sponsored links" aren't offset by a different color.

The same search at AltaVista on Wednesday produced a list of sites grouped under "products and services" that dominated the results page. No plainly visible disclaimer told users that these products and services really represented advertisers that paid to be ranked above other sites.

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