Why Google Ditched the Name ‘Sponsored Links’

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Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an ad is just an ad. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) embraced the clarity of that nifty two-letter word today, changing the label in what it used to call the “Sponsored Links” space to read simply “Ads” on all of its English-language websites.

The change may be driven by the fact that the word “Ads” simply gets better click rates, or it could mean indicate Google is thinking about moving “beyond links” in the spaces it reserves for advertising when users perform a search-getting into image ads, map-based ads or even video ads, as Search Engine Land suggested. A Google spokesman confirmed the change was rolled out today, adding: “We are always experimenting with the look and feel of our search results pages, including the delivery of relevant advertising.”

Google’s major competitors both avoid the word “ads.” Microsoft’s Bing search engine uses the phrase “Sponsored sites,” while Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) search uses the phrase “Sponsored results.”

While it’s primarily a marketing and user-interface issue, any change in how advertising is identified has legal implications, too. As the user-generated content has grown to constitute larger parts of the web, the Federal Trade Commission is increasingly concerned that online publishers properly label what’s an ad and what isn’t. Last year, the FTC published revised guidelines making clear that “sponsored posts” put up by bloggers should be labeled as such.

There’s little doubt that whether Google labels its ads “Sponsored Links” or “Ads,” its search ads are clear enough to pass muster with the government.

But Google’s AdWords program has also come under fire in courts from a variety of private plaintiffs who say that by selling ads against their trademarks, the search giant is confusing consumers. Those plaintiffs can’t win their cases with without proving AdWords’ practices create a “likelihood of confusion” among users (and to be clear, they haven’t won one yet, although the cases do seem to keep coming.)

As long as such lawsuits continue, Google’s advertising changes won’t just be tracked by its competitors-they’ll be subject to uniquely tough tests by lawyers looking to make the search giant pay out damages.

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