The FTC's warning included major search engines and niche domains, indicating a widespread problem with paid ads and organic web content.

Brafton recently covered letters sent by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which reminded search and social sites how sponsored online content should be displayed on the web. The FTC sent letters after observing many sites were not in compliance with its rules that obligate search engines to clearly disclose when digital content is displayed because it is purchased.

Marketers should take this as further evidence the days of black hat SEO practices are coming to a close. Keyword-stuffed articles and purchased backlinks will no longer give sites an edge in search results. At the same time, native ads shown as organic custom content to mislead readers will result in penalties.

Although the FTC didn’t provide names for the domains in question, Search Engine Land‘s Danny Sullivan submitted a request through the Freedom of Information Act that shows how common and widespread these violations may be. The list of sites that received letters included heavy hitters like Yahoo, Google, Bing, Ask, Duck Duck Go, Blekko and AOL. It also targeted travel sites such as Travelocity, Yahoo Travel, Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak, TripAdvisor and local search pages like CitySearch, Yahoo Local, Yelp and Yellow Pages. Comparison shopping sites TheFind, Nextag,, Pronto, Shopzilla and Bizrate were also named.

As domains are penalized for saturating results pages with paid web content, it becomes obvious that organic content is the way to win on the ‘net. Brands that develop sophisticated content marketing strategies, incorporate best SEO practices and measure their results with data-driven analytics can craft campaigns that drive results without concern about adequate transparency.

Lauren Kaye is a Marketing Editor at Brafton Inc. She studied creative and technical writing at Virginia Tech before pursuing the digital frontier and finding content marketing was the best place to put her passions to work. Lauren also writes creative short fiction, hikes in New England and appreciates a good book recommendation.