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.