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FTC advertising guidance: A conflict with usability?

On June 25, the Division of Advertising Practices of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a letter to search engine companies to update guidance published in 2002 on distinguishing paid search results and other forms of advertising from search results based on objective criteria. The updated guidance is directed in part at smaller devices such as mobile phones where the distinction of ads by shading and labeling may not be as clear as on a PC (e.g., if only the advertised options are visible on the small screen). The letter also explicitly says: “if a voice interface is used to deliver search results, a search engine should make an audio disclosure that is of an adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend it.” The letter also specifically notes “the introduction of voice assistants on mobile devices have offered consumers new ways of getting information,” and cautions, “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.”

The letter notes, “…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. Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers.” The letter also cites an indirect form of paid search: “Sometimes the results returned as part of a specialized search [‘such as news, images, local businesses, or consumer goods’] are based at least in part on payments from a third party. If that is the case, it is also a form of advertising and should be identified as such to consumers.” (This caution seems to include cases where the source of the information, e.g., restaurant reviews, is a preferred provider that pays for that role.) The letter cites court cases that have concluded that disclosures must be “sufficiently prominent and unambiguous to change the apparent meaning of the claims and to leave an accurate impression,” and that “simple, unequivocal” disclosures that are “conspicuously and prominently made” are required to overcome any misleading impressions created. The FTC published more detailed guidelines in a March update to the 2002 document.

I argued in The Software Society (and repeated in this blog) that that a major trend in user interfaces was the “Personal Assistant Model” (PAM) with a major factor being that the assistant used natural language processing to understand a request and deliver an answer as directly as possible. The PAM providing a direct answer rather than a list of options was particularly important in voice-only mode, e.g., while driving or using a Bluetooth earpiece microphone. A wearable device such as Apple’s rumored iWatch would necessarily have to provide concise search results as well. Listening to a long list of alternatives, some loudly stated as “ads,” is not an attractive alternative.

Despite the FTC’s concerns, I think everyone understands that advertising supports Web search providers, and no one wants to do without web search. Personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri today aren’t as obvious a source for advertising revenue, but in fact are the future of search. One Google executive has testified to Congress that Siri is a threat to their ad revenues, and another has stated at a conference that the trend to give more direct answers rather than solely a list of web sites is the “end of search as we know it.” Siri will launch a search (now Microsoft’s Bing), but also bypasses a general search to directly answer inquiries such as “Did the Giants win?” or “What movies are playing?” Google’s expanding collection of search features, including its Knowledge Graph, Google Now, and voice search accepting natural language, come close to a PAM. Repetitive statements that the source of the info or the choice of a specific result is an “ad” certainly will be annoying and inefficient, particularly if the message is audio and can’t be ignored.

It is critical to the usability of search and to the PAM that the FTC allow some minimally obnoxious way to indicate that a result is influenced by payment. Perhaps there should be simply a tone (“cash register”) before an audio result impacted by payment, with the meaning of that tone being advertised or indicated clearly once when a search engine or personal assistant is engaged. A repetitive statement before every reply that “this is an ad” is a bit like a pop-up ad on a web page and would be equally irritating.

There should also be a standardized option to get alternatives not favored by payment, which might minimize FTC concerns. A button at the top of every web page that allowed hiding advertised options might be sufficient for visual displays. For voice commands, a standard phrase such as “no ads” after initial results are displayed could be an option that doesn’t make it too easy to avoid ads.

The trickiest case is where there is a preferred provider of information, e.g., Yelp for restaurant reviews or a specific news source. In some cases, the personal assistant provider gets some fee for directing a user to the specific web source. Calling this an “ad” can be misleading, for example, when delivering factual information such as a sports score, even though the source of the information may be a preferred provider. I believe it is sufficient in these cases for the personal assistant provider to list preferred providers in the terms and conditions that users accept to use the personal assistant service. A standard voice or text command such as “preferred providers” could display a current list.

In any case, the FTC’s guidelines shouldn’t make the user interface a nightmare. That’s in the public interest as well.

2 thoughts on “FTC advertising guidance: A conflict with usability?

  • Jim Logan says:

    The voice industry can get ahead of the curve by defining some simple but recognizable earcon (or nonverbal audio identifier or short jingle) that consumers can easily be taught to mean “paid content”. The simpler the better, as long as it is unique and memorable. Anyone, if I was designing a solution for usability rather designing for in-usability, that is the approach I would take with the FTC. Note that “audio disclosure that is of an adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend it” does not explicitly require that the notice is verbal, or with good design the voice industry could approach the FTC with a proposal for a non-verbal disclosure.

  • Matthew Yuschik says:

    The use of an unobtrusive, short earcon, such as the “cash register” sound make the most sense. Perhaps “money jingling”. The key is that the signal does not interrupt the flow of the cognitive task, yet indicates the data is “different” to the degree the user cares to interpret it.

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