OlenderFeldman gave a presentation on Wednesday at the SES New York 2012 conference about emerging legal issues in search engine optimization (SEO) and online behavioral advertising. The topic of his presentation, Legal Considerations for Search & Social in Regulated Industries, focused on search and social media strategies in regulated industries. Regulated industries, which include healthcare, banking, finance, pharmaceuticals and publicly traded companies, among others, are subject to various government regulations, he said, but often lack sufficient guidance regarding acceptable practices in social media, search and targeted advertising.
Messing began with a discussion of common methods that search engine optimization companies use to raise their client’s sites in the rankings. The top search spots are extremely competitive, and the difference between being on the first or second page can make a huge difference in a company’s bottom line. One of the ways that search engines determine the relevancy of a web page is through link analysis. Search engines examine which websites link to that page, and what the text of those links — the anchor text – says about the page, as well as the surrounding content, to determine relevance. In essence, these links and contents can be considered a form of online citations.
A typical method used by SEO companies to raise website rankings is to generate content, using paid affiliates, freelance bloggers, or other webpages under the SEO company’s control, in order to increase the website’s ranking on search engines. However, since this content is mostly for the search engine spiders, and not for human consumption, the content is rarely screened, which can lead to issues with government agencies, especially in the regulated industries. This content also rarely contains disclosures that the author was paid to create the content, which could be unfair and deceiving to consumers. SEO companies dislike disclosing paid links and content because search engines penalize paid links. Messing said, “SEO companies are caught between the search engines, who severely penalize disclosure [of paid links], and the FTC, which severely penalizes nondisclosure.”
The main enforcement agency is the Federal Trade Commission, which has the power to investigate and prevent unfair and deceptive trade practices across most industries, though other regulated industries have additional enforcement bodies. The FTC rules require full disclosure when there is a “material connection” between a merchant and someone promoting its product, such as a cash payment, or a gift item. Suspicious “reviews” or unsubstantiated content can raise attention, especially in regulated industries. “If a FTC lawyer sees one of these red flags, you could attract some very unwanted attention from the government,” Messing noted.
Recently, the FTC has increased its focus on paid links, content and reviews. While the FTC requires mandatory disclosures, it doesn’t specify how those disclosures should be made. This can lead to confusion as to what the FTC considers adequate disclosure, and Messing said he expects the FTC to issue guidance on disclosures in the SEO, social media and mobile devices areas. “There are certain ecommerce laws that desperately need clarification,” said Messing.
Messing stated that clients need to ask what their SEO company is doing and SEOs companies need to tell them, because ultimately, both can be held liable for unfair or deceptive content. He recommends ensuring that all claims made in SEO content be easily substantiated, and recommended building SEO through goodwill. “In the context of regulated industries,” he said, “consumers often visit healthcare or financial websites when they have a specific problem. If you provide them with valuable, reliable and understandable information, they will reward you with their loyalty.”
Messing cautioned companies to be careful of what information they collect for behavioral advertising, and to consider the privacy ramifications. “Data is currency, but the more data a company holds, the more potential liability it is exposed to.” Messing expects further developments in privacy law, possibly in the form of legislation. In the meantime, he recommends using data responsibly, and in accordance with the data’s sensitivity. “Developing policies for data collection, retention and deletion is crucial. Make sure your policies accurately reflect your practices.” Finally, Messing noted that companies lacking a robust compliance program governing collection, protection and use of personal information may face significant risk of a data breach or legal violation, resulting litigation, and a hit to their bottom lines. He recommends speaking to a law firm that is experienced in privacy and legal compliance for businesses to ensure that your practices do not attract regulatory attention.