Wanadoo rapped for 'misleading' search results

Sponsored links must be clearly flagged

Wanadoo UK has been told to ensure that sponsored links from its search engine are "clearly identified in future" so as not to mislead punters.

The ruling by the ASA, the UK's advertising watchdog, follows a complaint against Freeserve (the ISP has since been rebranded as Wanadoo) which alleged that the summary of its search results did not make clear that the results were sponsored links. Instead, the complaint claimed that the results were ranked according to the amount of money sponsors paid, not according to their relevance to the search term.

Wanadoo denied that its site was misleading or that its search results were less relevant because they showed sponsored links first. It added that all sponsored links were clearly identified as being delivered by Overture, which provided the online advertising services.

But in a ruling yesterday, the ASA dismissed Wanadoo's claims after deciding that "consumers could be misled" by the inclusion of these sponsored links.

Andrew Ellam, the head of Web design firm 2-Minute-Website.com, and the man who made the complaint, is delighted at the stand taken by the ASA. Following his success, he's lodged a further 12 complaints against other search engines which, he believes, are also misleading customers.

Said Mr Ellam: "I contacted the ASA on behalf of all our small business clients". Since they pay less than a hundred pounds to get their website, they can't afford to spend hundreds on advertising - and they shouldn't have to.

"Consumers are likely to be fooled into thinking these adverts are unbiased search results, and small businesses who should appear in the listings are suffering".

"We've contacted the ASA about a number of other UK search engines and we've asked them to issue UK guidelines to correspond with those in the US, where the Federal Trade Commission ensures search sites make 'clear and conspicuous disclosure' when advertisers have paid to appear in their results."

Separately, Wanadoo UK has confirmed that it is re-jigging its business "in a way which will enable us to stay ahead of the market, and continue to thrive in a fast moving competitive environment".

The ISP said: "We are integrating the Portal and Internet Access sides of our business in three newly created departments, each led by a newly appointed Board member." ®

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