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Search engine providers address FTC complaints

Source: Reuters

PALO ALTO, Calif., (Reuters) A number of Internet search engine providers said Monday they have changed or will consider changes in the way they render search results to help users distinguish advertisements from other Web content.

The moves came after the Federal Trade Commission last week said it would urge Web sites to make sure that "any paid ranking search results are distinguished from non-paid results with clear and conspicuous disclosures."

The practice of including ads in search engine results has proven one of the most lucrative methods of Internet advertising, but a Portland, Ore.-based consumer group affiliated with Ralph Nader asked the FTC a year ago to look into the practice.

Not all the Internet sites that offer search engines agreed with the FTC findings that their results could be misleading. But some conceded they were open to adjusting their policies.

"We believe that the paid listings we display on our site are delineated from our search results and that the disclosure is not misleading," Fred Bullock, chief marketing officer of AltaVista, said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Bullock said he would take the FTC's recommendations seriously and review them carefully.

AltaVista, a unit of CMGI, is one of several Internet search services that use advertisements, or paid listings, compiled by Overture Services.

Advertisers go to Overture to bid on certain search terms, to insure their name appears when a given term is queried.

For example, if the term "Paris" is entered on AltaVista, advertisements for various hotels in Paris and travel planning Web sites will appear before content from the rest of the Web.

Last year, Commercial Alert asked the FTC to look into that practice of paid placement in Web searches and specifically whether it violated laws mandating disclosure of advertising content.

The original complaint, filed in July 2001, named AltaVista, AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Look Smart and others.

While the commission decided not to take action on the complaint, the FTC recommended in a June 27 letter that the search engine providers review their policies to ensure that paid search results were clearly distinguished.

For its part, Terra Lycos said four months ago it started to label its paid results "sponsored search" instead of "from our partners," to clarify that they were ads. The company said it would take seriously any further recommendations from the FTC.

AOL Time Warner's America Online said it saw no problem with its use of paid advertisements. America Online separates a list of "sponsored links" at the top of its search page before listing unsponsored search results.

Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited
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