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Online Advertising Regulation - What does it mean for SEO

Paul Chaloner

News that the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) will be given powers to regulate internet advertising from March 2011 was something of a surprise and also opens a massive can of worms across the entire internet.

It isn’t yet clear how they intend to police internet advertising, but there are big hints that their remit will include social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Policing the internet, whether it be games, music and film piracy or just generally shutting down illegal file sharing sites,  has always been a very difficult thing to achieve, but when it comes to advertising on the internet there are a plethora of issues the ASA will have to address and clear implications for Internet marketers.

What Applied Offline Will Apply Online

The ASA has said it will cover all advertisements and marketing and that the same strict rules will be applied online as with traditional media. This statement of intent already has massive implications for websites and blogs, as well as video sharing sites and of course social media platforms.

The rules only apply to content that is not editorial or journalistic in nature, but that leaves some confusion for SEO companies. It is clear from the news that paid search will be part of the ASA’s remit and they have already said they intend to not only remove paid searches that break the rules, but could in some instances replace the advert with one of their own which highlights the breach.

PPC Compliance Issues

It isn’t entirely clear however whether the ASA will punish the paid search company or the company being advertised, but either way the rules will have a massive impact on paid search operations and potentially drive up costs as, presumably, PPC providers will now have to recruit compliance staff, something many of them will never have done in the past.

The ASA - putting the lid on internet advertising?
The ASA - putting the lid on internet advertising?

Making SEO “Advertorial”

From an SEO perspective, it would seem that blog writing doesn’t fall under the new regulations as that’s “editorial” in nature.  However, many SEO companies will write blogs with links in the content and will be writing about products - effectively seeking to promote them.  How long would it be before the ASA considers this to be “advertorial” and therefore falling into the grey area between “editorial” and “advertising” once it has its QUANGO feet under the proverbial internet table?

Not in Front of The Children

One of the main reasons cited for the change in powers is the protection of children and vulnerable people.  The ASA says these extended responsibilities are intended to protect those vulnerable groups from physical, mental or moral harm.  That is a perfectly good reason to tighten up regulations, but surely a far more effective way of achieving this would be a campaign aimed at educating the parents or carers of those vulnerable groups about Internet use, rather than guarding the Internet stable door after the horse has bolted?

Restricting Social Media?

Social media is not immune from ASA oversight too.   The ASA says it will have the power to remove pieces of advertising or marketing from Facebook and Twitter, but as with blogs and SEO article marketing or content for example, how will it decide  what is advertising and marketing? Will we see links we post on our personal accounts deleted because the ASA feels our opinion is misleading? That’s maybe not an issue for individuals, but for the growing number of companies using these platforms the implications are enormous. Instead of running a quick, fun competition that gives away free products and takes a few minutes to post on Facebook, companies will now need to run it past the internal compliance person for approval and even then could see their hard work removed without warning. It could well affect social media campaigns significantly.

Whose Complaint is It Anyway?

If the ASA catch him, Steveo is in trouble
If the ASA catch him, Steveo is in trouble

Do the figures justify such an extension of powers?   It is said that around 35 million people now have access to and use the internet on a daily basis in the UK, yet just 3,500 complaints were made about internet advertising last year  -  0.01% of all users. It’s true that poor and misleading advertising shouldn’t be ignored, but does that mean it should be subject to the same draconian regulations that were established for a completely different type of media?

The Mary Whitehouse Experience?

While many may feel this is pretty “big brother” scary, the actual impact of these changes will probably have little or no affect on the internet.   The ASA may be a big organisation, but does anyone seriously expect that the ASA will run the rule over every single banner ad and every single social media post to ensure compliance?  I suspect that, in practice, whilst the ASA’s new powers extend to the internet, it will only really be applying those rules where it receives complaints.   And if only 0.01% of people are complaining, we probably won’t be seeing a major revolution just yet!  What it does open the door to of course is “organised complaining” (such as was orchestrated by the likes of Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers & Listeners Association)  and the possibility of well and professionally managed “spoiler tactics” that will aim to bring down competitor’s ads for a fraction of the cost of running your own costly PPC  campaign.


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