Should search engine optimisation (SEO) efforts be regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency? Recent discussions over whether or not the UK Code of Advertising Practice should apply to SEO have interested me considerably, because the existing rules simply cannot cater for the sector. Furthermore, while much of the recent debate has centred on whether or not the sector should impose self-regulating standards, I have seen considerably less debate about what those standards should be.
Kerry Nielson, the director of legal and public affairs with the Periodical Publishers Association, told the Association of Online Publishers that it is becoming “increasingly apparent” that some advertising platforms do not fall under the jurisdiction of the code and therefore cannot be investigated or regulated by the ASA. She called upon the online advertising sector to decide whether it wants self regulation or new, targeted legislation and makes some interesting points about the benefits and issues resulting from each possibility.
The ASA itself admits that, while paid-for advertising on the pages of search results fall under its remit, it cannot issue edicts on content which is not in paid-for online space.
However, it is hard to see how any regulator could exercise control on something as all-encompassing as search. The purpose of SEO is not to make wild claims about the brilliance of a product or service; it is, very simply, to shout down the competition. Well done SEO means drowning out all competing online voices, it means raising one company’s visibility at the expense of other firms.
This makes it a pretty unique form of marketing. When Coca Cola advertises its pop it does not follow that Pepsi has to make fewer adverts. There is no limited print space for advertising studenty food over which Pot Noodle and Supernoodles must wrestle. I believe this means that Ofcom or the ASA are unable to effectively monitor the sector, which suggests to me that self-regulation is necessary, if just to stop less-informed groups from imposing rules.
However, I also think that some fairly extensive debate and round table discussion should take place regarding precisely what those rules ought to be. Regulation is coming and we the industry need to act first.