Search engine marketing and sponsored links are a big growth area in digital marketing. But after this decision, presenting search results will need much greater care.
Topic: Digital marketing
Who: Freeserve plc
Where: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: May 2004
A complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) over search result listings from an Internet service provider, Freeserve, now re-branded “Wanadoo.”
The complainant objected that the search results summary did not make clear that they were sponsored links and that they were ranked according to the amount of money sponsors paid, not according to their relevance to the search term.
Freeserve defended on the basis that sponsored links were readily identifiable as being delivered by the on-line advertising service provider, Overture This was by way of an “Overture” hyperlink at the foot of each sponsored search result. Clicking on this hyperlink opened a pop-up box which explained that Overture ranked the search results by the amount each advertiser bid for inclusion in the search, with the highest bidder appearing at the top of the search results.
Freeserve said that sponsored results were all checked manually to ensure their relevance to the search criteria and it did not believe the results were misleading purely because the sponsored links were shown first.
The ASA noted all that Freeserve had to say, but it felt that sponsored links should be clearly identified by a headline or title. The hyperlink was all very well, but its purpose was not explained on the search page. Something like “Click here to find out more about sponsored search results” might have been more helpful. As it was, consumers could be misled and the complaint was upheld, with Freeserve required to ensure that sponsored links were clearly identified in future.
Why this matters:
This is a potentially huge decision for the search engine marketing industry.
As recent massive attendance at a London search engine marketing convention showed, there is an increasing interest in this digital marketing method, with companies such as Google allegedly deriving the vast majority of their soaring incoming from these activities worldwide.
Here in the UK, the industry is only in its early stages with estimates at around £60,000,000 for last year. Jupiter Research, however, predicts that within the next couple of years this will increase by at least 50-60%. Marketinglaw’s prediction is that with or without this ASA decision, the increase is likely to be much larger than this, but with further similar complaints being investigated by the ASA against the Daily Mail’s UK plus, AOL Europe, Microsoft’s MSN and about 10 other websites, search engines are clearly going to have to think again about how to present search results.
In fact, the ASA or more probably its sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, is currently contemplating producing formal rules for search engines covering this area, and it will not be a moment too soon.