The FTC and the Irony of “Organic” Search

Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent letters to Google, Yahoo!, Bing and 20 other heavily trafficked search engines warning them they must clearly and prominently distinguish paid search (advertising) from natural search results.  If they fail to do so they could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which guards consumers against deceptive advertising.  The FTC wants to make sure that the search engines are using stronger visual cues and labeling so that consumers can understand what is advertising and what is not.  According to the FTC, there has been a blurring of the lines as mobile devices and other new ways to conduct searches have become available.  Unfortunately, the FTC is basing its concerns off of a 2005 Pew Research Center survey that found 62% of searchers were not even aware of the distinction between paid and non-paid results.  Considering Internet years are like dog years, that is like using research from 1957.  But I digress.

As a marketer who uses search engine marketing for our clients on a daily basis, we understand the important role that search marketing has in the consumer’s path to purchase.  In some cases, it may influence the very beginning of the cycle as in a new car purchase.  In the travel category, it tends to influence a point closer to the actual purchase.

As discussion whirled surrounding the FTC’s warning, there was an important piece of the puzzle that was not mentioned.  In addition to search engine marketing, businesses invest heavily in their website infrastructure in order to have good rankings in the “natural” or organic search results as well.   Search engine optimization (SEO) is a critical part of any marketing budget that includes website development and marketing.  Without investing money and knowledge into SEO, consumers would not be able to find your business in the organic listings.  There really is nothing “natural” about that.  SEO and SEM both require investment on advertiser’s part – the business model just changes depending on the tactic.