On the 26th of May there was an update to The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act.
There's certainly been coverage of the Act on the likes of the BBC but the focus has been on buzz marketing. Search marketing campaigns could be affected as well.
I'm not a lawyer. This post should not be considered as legal advice in anyway. This post does not even answer the question: "Is your search marketing campaign legal any more?" It simply asks it.
Does that sound like a sensible caveat? It seems to be a rather appropriate caveat too, as many of the new additions to the Act focus on traders/businesses pretending to be someone they're not. You can find a PDF of the updated act on the Office of Fair Trading site.
Two paragraphs from the Act stand out as worthy of attention from a search point of view:
Paragraph 11, Section 1: Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer (advertorial).
Paragraph 22, Section 1: Falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.
Let's have a look at where this may impact Search.
Search Engine Optimisation
The biggest offender would be paid for reviews. This is not a search technique that I'd recommend - as it is against Google's guidelines - but some SEO involves paying a blogger to review a product or a whole website and make sure there are keyword rich links back to the business/trader/merchant.
It would seem that under the updated Act, if you're paying bloggers to write about you and link to you then you risk being thrown out of Google and into jail. Well that's the extreme possibility but it is a scary one!
Paid for Reviews are an extension of Paid for Links. In the world of search - links are important. As a result, some search agencies and some merchants simply pay websites to link to them (or their clients, etc).
Google says that if you want to buy text links in a way that could not be mistaken as an attempt to trick their algorithm that these text links are marked "nofollow" or go through an appropriate redirect. It's worth noting that neither step is likely to be enough to turn an 'illegal paid link' into one that will satisfy the Consumer Protection Act, though.
If a link has been bought from a website and that website also happens to be reviewing or being editorial about your brand or product then that's where the danger rests.
Whereas previously the link may have been breaking Google's guidelines it may now be breaking the law. It would depend on whether the Office of Fair Trading considered the presence of the link near to the editorial to be acting as a either a recommendation or an advertorial.
Social Media for Search
Some elements of Social Media may also be affected by the updated Act. If a search agency is hanging around in communities, building networks or communicating with Key Influencers for you - and they're not being open with those key influencers or communities as to whom they are - then they may well be acting as a 'trader' attempting to pass themselves off as a consumer.
Simple things like rating your own YouTube video 5/5 would also seem to be a problem. It seems unlikely to me (Mr Not-A-Lawyer) that the updated Act was written with this in mind. A good solution would seem to be to ensure your YouTube - or any other social media profile - identified who you are.
Paid Search seems to be relatively immune from the updated Act. An interesting grey area is Yahoo's Search Submit program where merchants and pay Yahoo to add URLs to Yahoo's search index. Yahoo insists that Search Submit Pro is an inclusion program and not a promotion methodology, though. SSP is not supposed to be influencing anything other than Yahoo's own resources.
Gosh. The impactions of the updated Act on affiliate marketing could be huge. I've not seen many communications from affiliate networks to their affiliates about the Act either.
Do you know what your affiliates are up to? It is certainly possible that affiliates trying to create their own buzz campaign would now be breaking the law if they fail to identify business relationships clearly enough.
Is an affiliate generated review an advertorial? It certainly could be.
Food for thought.
Andrew Girdwood is head of search at bigmouthmedia .