Google and other search engine providers have been told by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to distinguish adverts from results on their services.
In an update to its decade-old guidelines, the FTC - which at the start of this year cleared Google of biasing its search results to nobble its Stateside competitors - said its consumer protection staff had fired off letters to search engine outfits.
The missive told them to clarify to users what are paid search results and other forms of advertising from that of natural search results, which significantly don't make the likes of Google any money.
The watchdog was heavily criticised by Google's rivals for failing to take action against the company's alleged dominance of the search market in the US.
A separate investigation in the European Union remains a hotbed of discussion in Brussels and tomorrow (27 June) has been set as the deadline for the market test of Google's "remedy" proposals to the Commission coming to an end.
So the timing of the FTC's decision to write to search engine providers is undoubtedly interesting - given that many of Google's rivals have complained long and hard about how Mountain View places results on its service. Critics have long argued that the company gifts prominent positions to those paying for ads in a move that - it is claimed - stifles competing businesses.
The US regulator argued that a search engine's failure to adhere to the FTC's guidance by setting apart ads from natural search results "could be a deceptive practice".
The updated guidance emphasizes the need for visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements, in order to avoid misleading consumers, and it makes recommendations for ensuring that disclosures commonly used to identify advertising are noticeable and understandable to consumers.
The commission said it had written to Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft's Bing, AOL, Ask.com, Blekko and DuckDuckGo. Additionally, 17 other companies that specialise in vertical search markets such as shopping and travel also received the letter from the FTC.
Social media, mobile apps, and voice assistant services all fall under the guidelines, too, the watchdog added.
"The guidance advises that regardless of the precise form that search takes now or in the future, paid search results and other forms of advertising should be clearly distinguishable from natural search results," it said. ®