ASA Guidelines loom – Is your SEO campaign ready

by Peter Young on February 28, 2011 · 1 comment

March the 1st has arrived, something which could have quite far reaching implications in terms of SEO for both website owners and SEOs themselves. ASA regulations are nothing new to the advertising industry, certainly they have been round in other media such as newspapers, catalogues and posters as well as display and paid keyword advertising on search engines.

However this new legislation broadens the scope of such legislation as well as bringing into scope a very major ally in Google, who are not only supporting the regulations but also part funding them. Google have long since waged a battle against that of paid links, and in the revised regulations would appear to have finally met an ally which could help them put a hammer blow into the paid links argument,

Matt Brittin from Google was quoted as saying:

If people have a complaint about a claim made on a website it’s important that it is properly investigated. We support the ASA’s aims of providing consumer protection and are happy to help get this up and running for the benefit of UK consumers and businesses.

Under the new ruling, any links wishing to be under the guidelines of the new CAP guidelines would need to be disclosed as being paid for in such a way that made it very obvious of any paid relationship between the advertiser and publisher or using the OFT terminology advertisers must:

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

Further more:

  • Claims which cannot be substantiated will need to be proved. (sidenote: I can think of a number of SEO companies here that may need to prove to be the number 1 SEO in the UK here :) )
  • Any disclosures to special offers or discounts will need to be accurate and not in any way misleading
  • All product descriptions and claims will need to be factually true and verifiable.

This opens a whole merry go round of legalities as far as policing this is concerned,for example:

  • How will the ASA deal with links acquired from international sites with no direct link to the UK – such as .com, .net. This surely will be a far more difficult to deal with than simple UK to UK relationships.
  • Where does the remit for this end. For example, the guise to develop content networks to build links on either under the guise of content or direct links may fall under this remit – and as such be of just as much concern as the upcoming Google ‘Farmer Update’ here in the UK
  • How far does disclosure go. Does appropriate categorisation in a particular channel suffice or does one have to definitely state that the advertorial/link/blog post etc is of a paid variety in a case by case basis.
  • Where does this leave offsite SEO companies offering services to overseas companies targeting UK audiences – I can think of a number particularly in the health/supplements sector where this may well apply.
  • Will this play into the hands of churn and burn affiliates who may not be worried about long term visibility. I personally can’t help thinking this legislation is of greater to larger organisations rather than ‘opportunistic’ affiliates wishing to exploit potential loopholes.
  • Finally, and very seriously in my opinion. Whats to stop an unscrupulous competitor buying links on a website, not disclosing them and then reporting a competitor to the ASA. This is not something that is likely to happen on either paid search, display or above the line activity but lets face it. Links are cheap and easy to acquire – and something as small as this could be a very easy way to potentially cause a lot of problems to advertisers. Have the ASA in my opinion necessarily thought of this through given the limited experience in this sector?

Google in particular will be watching things very closely for two reasons. Firstly there is obviously a very open footprint to expose potential paid links on websites, something one can’t help Google will happily utilise in search of websites which may or may not contravene the guidelines. As I said during my post earlier today, I can’t help thinking there may some reconsideration on Google’s part for this, as this may have the net result of high churn tactics which merely stimulate areas which promote low quality content output,something if we are all honest doesn’t necessarily always result in great quality content or useful content to a reader – but thats another argument.

All this begs the question as to how this will be regulated. Emma Atkins, Commercial Litigation & Intellectual Property lawyer at Denison Till Solicitors suggests the following (from the Epiphany Solutions blog)

In reality, as has always been the case, provided the communications you make are legal, decent, honest, and truthful and in the ‘spirit of the code’ you are unlikely to be at risk. Moreover, the ASA is a reactive enforcer rarely seeking out problems and preferring to wait until a complaint is made; most instances of minor non-compliance will likely go unnoticed.

Nevertheless, it has indicated that it will be making ‘spot checks’, monitoring problem sites and seeking the cooperation of search engines in punishing breaches of the CAP Code. Where a breach is found to have taken place the ASA will in most cases make a simple request for withdrawal of the communication. The ASA also has powers to:

> name and shame repeat offenders on the ASA website
> place warning advertisements alongside the search results listings of products and brands of non-compliant businesses
> force the removal of paid for links/advertisements that link directly to the page hosting the non compliant marketing communications
> refer matters to the Office of Fair Trading for action under the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 or the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008

This is said to be the most comprehensive and robust approach to the regulation of advertising online anywhere in the world but the reputation of the internet as being notoriously difficult to police will not be greatly affected in my view.

Nevertheless, anyone dealing with marketing communications, such as website owners and agents should amend their regulatory compliance procedures to account for the new rules. They should consider:

> introducing or amending procedures to ensure regular checking of their web presence
> training any employees contributing content on company’s website, facebook, blogs, twitter
> reviewing standard agreements to make sure references to relevant codes of practice cover the new CAP Code and other relevant ASA guidance
> ensuring agreements with advertisers/agents require compliance with all laws, codes and regulations in all territories at which the communication is targeted

The ASA has set up CAP Services, which provides free guidance and training on how to comply with the CAP Code and this can be accessed through their website.

For agencies that are currently employing a number of ethical routes to link building this wont come as much of a concern, however there is no doubting there will be a number of agencies and clients in particular that will be drawing some very deep breaths as the deadline day draws ever nearer. Will this eradicate paid links – I highly doubt – and much of this will come down to a risk reward scenario – particular given the perceived risks of contravening this guidelines which would appear to be fairly weak and limited particularly for early offenders – and in many instances may just result in a request for the link to be taken down rather than any serious legal implications.

That said I think this is an interesting day for UK search marketing as a whole, and one potentially which may have far reaching effects over the coming years. I can’t help thinking early days are going to be a bit touch and feel for both the ASA and the search marketing sector as a whole – as both sides test the boundaries. My main concern would appear to be the scale at which the ASA in particular is able to deal with this given the potential scope of policing required to man this effectively – lets face it they haven’t got the algorithmic capabilities of Google – and whether this merely ends up being a very good idea with limited remit. Time will ultimately tell….


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clare harris March 1, 2011 at 8:25 am

Affiliate links publisher removed its free of ads claim yesterday. I think we’ll see far more voluntary changes than ASA enforced.

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