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The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK has a wide remit. In March 2011 this remit further expands, with backing from Google, to look at claims and sales practises on websites. It’s already possible for the ASA to investigate PPC campaigns.

Natural search results are exempt from the expanded remit as is user generated content provided it is not then used in marketing communications. It might be tempting to consider SEO outside the ASA’s area of interest but this is not the case.

In fact, it is the presentation of the natural search results that are exempt from the Committee of Advertising Practise not the methods by which these are achieved. For example, if Google’s search snippet suggests that Widget X is for sale from your site for £9.99 but you’ve recently increased the price to £11.99 then the CAP will not consider you at fault. They accept it’s up to Google to update the search snippet.

So, when would the ASA consider investigating brands, agencies and website owners for SEO tactics? One very possible scenario for 2011 is the presence of undisclosed paid for links.

In a run through scenario of an SEO agency acquiring a link from a blogger, with the intent of pushing the SEO rankings, Malcolm Philips, Code Policy Manager at the Committee of Advertising Practise, agreed that the ASA would likely investigate such techniques.

Google requires the use of code, typically the ‘nofollow’ but alternatives such as a redirect through a robots.txt blocked script, but that’s not what the ASA and the CAP are interested in. The ASA wants to ensure that paid for links, and other promotions, are disclosed in such a way that the average consumer can see the relationship between blogger and advertiser.

It’s therefore possible for links to be safe by Google standards but still in breach of the ASA. Equally, it’s possible for links to be safe by the ASA standard but in breach of Google’s guidelines. You can imagine black hat SEO agencies are not likely to buy links from sites and ask the website owner to then publicly disclose that those links were bought.

One complaint against Google is that the search engine does not seem to take action against big brands. This is something that Google denies. In this video Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam, makes it clear that the spam team does take action against big brands.

It might well be argued that the ASA is more likely to be investigate big brands. It may way be a retailer risking a quick win strategy for Christmas or a travel company pushing Q1 success.

The ASA, of course, isn’t alone. Much of the CAP reflects current regulations and laws – the guidance of the Office of Fair Trading, for example, is a significant influence.

The OFT has already been engaged this year, stepping in to ensure that blog collective Handpicked Media used appropriate disclaimers on posts.

Interesting the OFT said;

... disclose, in a manner unavoidable to the average consumer, that the promotion has been paid for or otherwise remunerated.

In other words, the OFT is interested if bloggers or site owners are “remunerated” in some way. The SEO agency tactic of “paying for time” rather than the link or paying for a “banner” that just happens to come with a bunch of links might also be breaking the law.

Finally, it is easy to imagine that the number of complaints the ASA receives about undisclosed paid for reviews, links and other promotions will massively ramp up in 2011. If the ASA is seen to act and Google is seen to be slow then agencies, competitors and customers may be lining up to help report violations.

Image by gt8073a, via Flickr.

Andrew Girdwood

Published 17 December, 2010 by Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood is Head of Media Technologies at Signal and a guest blogger for Econsultancy. He can be found on Twitter here.

41 more posts from this author

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DogFace

Are you f**king joking

almost 6 years ago

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Wade Crook

Good Luck with this!!

If Google don't have the resources to police this properly then I'm not sure how some box ticking paper pushers are going to be able to do it!

almost 6 years ago

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Maurice

Mmmm so will the ASA look at the gift suggestion guides in glossy supplements and into the fashion industry. And the cutsey press release about a "survay" that plugs a particular product or buisness area then?

almost 6 years ago

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Sankar Datti

Let us see wat's gonna happen in 2011

almost 6 years ago

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CatsPaws

I'm already compiling a list of every page I find that has a link on it in order to report them all to the ASA. That should keep them busy come March. @DogFace LOL

almost 6 years ago

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buyer beware

The ASA is funded by advertisers. Big brands using SEO techniques are not going to fund a self regulator that bans their successful, hidden techniques. Only the OFT will step in and do that and then only if the government wants it to which may be the case. It may be that the government is serious about rebalancing the UK economy away from consumer led spending.

almost 6 years ago

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Ane-ne-mous

Well in that case, BigMouthMedias ars will be on the line :) Cas I heard clients paying them shit loads of money for an ethical (decent) link building activity and all they do is fuck it all up...watch out BMM.

almost 6 years ago

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buyer beware

Amazon's associates too? The only reason anyone signs up to Amazon as an affiliate is to be paid to promote links to Amazon. To just blog what you think you don't sign up to affiliate marketing programs.

almost 6 years ago

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Dara Bell

Hi Andrew,

Been following this some time.   Although I see where some commentators are coming from the answers do not look at the facts,  It is inevitable if you try high pressure sales ononline you will get burnt. Most people are online to escape telemarketeers, barages of tv advertsing and the like.   Decent relationship building in an ethical fashion cuts through that resistance like a brooad sword.

The facts are online sales are up this month, as is the hours people spend online. This issue is not going away.  Someone has to police it as we want to safe online. I believe high pressure sales people will gravitate to the web in the next few years.

Dara Bell

almost 6 years ago

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SEO Tramp

What utter nonsense. Completely un-enforceable. @Ane-ne-mous - brilliant!

almost 6 years ago

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Small Mouth Media

*Steps in to ROFLCOPTER* The comments on the page made the article. Merry Xmas.

almost 6 years ago

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Nikhil Narayan

This is a very good move to curb rotten SEO prctices and self proclaimed result oriented SEO companies or experts. Hopefully, it will guard laymen from getting double-crossed by such organizations. This will bring the real top SEO companies to lime-light. Thanks to Google for backing up this healthy initiative.

almost 6 years ago

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click asia summit

The blog was quite engaging. Please keep me updated in case of further developments.

almost 6 years ago

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Conor

Totally unenforceable I completely agree. Some companies are going to lose out to heavy handedness from ASA though. They will be able to destroy some firms. Good idea to bombard them with all the stupid stuff you see. Be good to see blackhatters finding it harder to promote bullsh&t products though. Also agree that if google can't do it noone can. I think google is also making money here but can't see how. Perhaps by making sure the only Adverts online are theirs. Maybe a deal where Asa will ignore adsense content. Afterall would you bite the hand that feeds you.

almost 6 years ago

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last will and testament

I hate to go with the herd here, but one would have thought the ASA had better things to do with its time.

almost 6 years ago

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big mike media

@dara bell - "I believe high pressure sales people will gravitate to the web in the next few years" I think these sort of people already gravitated to the web circa 1995 - 1997, they have been migrating to Internet Land ever since they heard the stories of gold to be found in them thar Internet Hills as published by all major newspapers. "Someone has to police it as we want to safe online." Not sure if anyone has pointed this out to you but there is an X is in the top right hand corner of the screen, it's the ultimate weapon in every web users arsenal, try pressing it once in a while, it works wonders. Who are you to decide who needs policing?

almost 6 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

Online or offline, “bad” marketing and advertising is the same as “bad” selling and sales people.

And “good” sales people are just that too, online or offline. If you have a real question or problem, and then you can find an actual “expert” or “trusted advisor” who answers it for you – and which may well involve you buying something, you’ll a) be delighted and b) tell all your friends or colleagues.

The more complex the problem, the less likely any “marketing collateral” will be able to solve it for you, thus the rise of “conversations”. They’re currently still disguised as B2C “social media marketing” though, with the collateral/marketing/machine boys desperate to get their stuff into play – and which none of us want or can use, as you’re all mostly saying.

Policing what people say to each other, and why, is of course also quite a “biggie” though – and I wasn’t sure where those marketing folks paying our teenagers to “mention” Lady Gaga or whatever it was, on Facebook, fitted in to that. Is that the same as paying them to drop a leaflet through your letter box, or not?

almost 6 years ago

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farouk

thanks for the info but i guess small retailers wont have to worry right?"

almost 6 years ago

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Andrew Marshall, SEM Manager at s1

I'm sure a few lucky people will make money out of this pointless campaign

almost 6 years ago

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Robert Greg

This problem comes from the fact Google ranks sites through the number and quality of inbound links. We are all dancing to their stupid tune. They have created this mess! There is no chance the ASA will get to grips with this.

almost 6 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

What a waste of time, it would be like saying to one person they need to manually verify every phone number in the phone book is correct, by lunchtime. Looks like the ASA know as much about the internet as Ed Vaizey

almost 6 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

Perhaps if they just start with a handful of sites that have peer-to-peer or possibly paid reviews, they'll get a better idea of the manpower needed?

I'd suggest Amazon, eBay, Facebook & Twitter, in the morning, and then see how it looks after lunch say...

almost 6 years ago

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Free bet

This is a joke, i`m curious how it will be implemented!, but what happends if i link to another site which is mine too.

almost 6 years ago

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Assurance auto

It won't happen as long as blackhatters are gaming Google (as long as there's money to make on the web).

almost 6 years ago

Miles Carter

Miles Carter, SEO / Web Developer at Zeland

This is crazy, and the BBC gets away with reprinting press releases from Facebook as news with graphs of doctored statistics about their growth that must have been directly sourced from the FB PR spin department. That's the sort of thing I want to see cracked down on.

almost 6 years ago

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Helle

What a stupidors idea, is this for real or some kind of prank?

almost 6 years ago

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Posca

I hate Google!

They say they do not penalise issues such as duplicate content but yet when other websites who have cleary used your content end up resulting in your own website dropping in the listings!

almost 6 years ago

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okinony

I wouldn't say that some guys need to justify existence of their jobs and organizations then create crap like this, but you may think it if you wish.

almost 6 years ago

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idietcola

Interesting, especially as we buy links daily, i imagine the asa will struggle to find people at fault... not only must we as optimisers dramatically avoid any sentiment of paid link inclusions pointing to our client sites, we must now search for link bait rather than paid manipulation... It will make life hard, but should out some of the crap seo snake oil salesmen that give us a bad name. Heres to the future iDCx

over 5 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

As I was trying to point out initially iDC, it is really as simple as wanting to stop people lying or cheating, be that through "selling" or "marketing".

And one very good pointer I should mention in passing is when you can easily see, with names, photos, company names and so on, on discussion threads like this, who people are, and what or who they represent. Miles & Peter I "get", for example, Andrew a bit less, the rest, not so sure who they are, what they're linked to, why they think that, etc....

over 5 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

This is straight out of Orwell's 1984.

And it's anti-trust material. Only Google has the right to be compensated for links? The stuff of absurdist comedy if it weren't true.

Thanks for flagging this, Andrew.

over 5 years ago

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LordManley

Interesting to see how the ASA specified yesterday that SEO was now out of scope - a change of heart?

over 5 years ago

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