Tired of clicking on a search result and getting an ad? So are people at the FTC.

The Skinny extends a tip of the cap to Mary K. Engle, Associate Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, and her team for giving Google and other Internet media companies a rap on the knuckles – and a hard one at that. No one should take a warning letter from the FTC lightly, and the government agency this week served notice that the confusion these firms are inflicting on users like you and me needs to stop.

Way to go, FTC!

In a letter sent to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft (Bing), AOL and 17 “providers of search in areas such as shopping, travel and local businesses,”  as Bloomberg described it, Engle warned them that they must do a better job of differentiating ads from “natural” search results.

Here’s the key paragraph:

“Although the ways in which search engines retrieve and present results, and the devices on which consumers view these results, are constantly evolving, the principles underlying the 2002 Search Engine letter [when the FTC declared policy on the issue]  remain the same: consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party.”

That’s good news for consumers – if these companies obey.

“Search engines provide invaluable benefits to consumers. By using search engines, consumers can find relevant and useful information, typically at no charge. At the same time, consumers should be able to easily distinguish natural search results from advertising that search engines deliver,” Engle wrote.

“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.

“We appreciate your cooperation in ensuring your business practices conform to the supplemental guidance provided in this letter.”

“We appreciate your cooperation …”

You think?

You think the companies will appreciate this letter and react accordingly? Keep monitoring your own confusing search results and let’s see.

Search results can be confusing anyway, let alone forcing users to practically read fine print (what we used to call agate type in the newspaper business) before stumbling into ads that look like news and legitimate information.

It’s even worse on mobile devices, especially smart phones, with their smaller screens, eh?

And we all know the world is going mobile. But should smaller make Internet searching harder? Nope.

So warns the FTC.

“Online search is far from static, and continues to evolve. 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,” Engle 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.” (Emphasis added.)

“For example, if a social network were to stream recommended restaurants based on what a particular consumer’s social contacts have enjoyed, it should clearly distinguish as advertising any information feeds included or prioritized based in whole or in part on payments from a third party.

“We recognize that business models for these new search platforms are changing and that flexibility is required in developing the most effective methods for clearly and prominently differentiating advertising from other information. To ensure that advertising is easily  distinguishable on any future search platform, we encourage businesses to consult the guidance provided in this letter, as well as staff’s recently published guidelines for mobile and other online advertisers.”

The full letter can be read online.

The knuckles have been rapped.

Will the brains listen?