Rules regarding the ranking of search results
When searching or comparing products online, consumers must be able to have confidence in the results. If you change the ranking of search results, consumers will need to know on the basis of what factors you do so, because you cannot mislead consumers. If information about the ranking is missing or unclear, it is considered a misleading practice.
Are consumers on your website able to search for products or able to compare products from different companies or consumers? If so, you might present the search results or comparison results in a certain order. That order is called ‘ranking’. Your ranking may consist of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ search results. These are search results that have not been paid for and that are on the basis of relevance to the consumer. Consumers expect these ‘natural’ results when performing a search on your website. You may also include products in your ranking or place certain products higher or more prominently in your ranking because a business paid you to do so (‘paid inclusion’ and ‘paid ranking’).
The ranking can greatly affect the decisions of consumers. Consumers often click on one of the first search results without paying any attention to the quality or relevance of that result. Also, they seldom change the ranking of the results. If you use paid inclusion or paid ranking, consumers might make different choices than they would have made with rankings that are not influenced (or only partially so) by paid inclusion or paid ranking.
That is why you need to explain clearly how you sort search results and comparison results, and whether they include any paid offers, so that consumers know what they are clicking on and that they are not being misled. The information that you give must be transparent. In that context, your language and the way you present information are important, for example the location and design of the information.
What is required and what is not allowed?
Example: Information about paid ranking
A company runs a real estate website. On this website, real estate listings of a realtor association are placed higher in the search results than listings that are not offered through that association’s realtors. The company receives a fee from the realtor association for doing so. This practice is not explained with the search results. It is therefore a misleading practice.
In this case, the company must clearly explain that the top search results only concern homes that are listed by certain realtors that have paid for it. The company can do so by adding a label that clarifies and explains that those higher rankings have been paid for.
Moreover, information regarding the most important parameters of the ranking of the real estate listings must be directly and easily accessible from the page on which the listings are presented.
Example: Sorting by relevance
A booking website for holiday accommodations offers the sorting option of ‘relevance’. However, in the results that were sorted using this option, ‘paid’ results are still placed higher. This practice is misleading. When sorting results by the sorting option of ‘relevance’, the company cannot take into account the factor of getting paid for boosting certain accommodations.
- Title 5, section 2B of the Dutch Civil Code, Book 6 (Provisions regarding distance-selling agreements between traders and consumers) (in Dutch), for example, see Section 6:230m of the Dutch Civil Code, paragraph 3, under a: precontractual information requirements for online marketplaces.
- Title 3, section 3A of the Dutch Civil Code, Book 6 (Unfair commercial practices) (in Dutch), for example, see Section 6:139e of the Dutch Civil Code, paragraph 2 (in Dutch); essential information when ranking search results, and Section 6:139g of the Dutch Civil Code, paragraph x (in Dutch), informing unclearly or failing to inform at all about the fact that the ad has been paid for, or that a business has paid for a higher position in the ranking, is a misleading practice under all circumstances.
- Directive 2005/29/EC (Unfair Commercial Practices Directive)
- Directive 2011/83/EU (Consumer Rights Directive)
- Regulation (EU) 2019 (Platform 2 Business), see Article 5 for the requirements with regard to ranking that specifically apply to online intermediation service providers and online search engines.
- Regulation (EU) 2022/2065 (Digital Services Act). As of 17 February 2024, the Digital Services Act will set boundaries and rules to the use of ads (personalized or otherwise) and recommender systems by online platforms. For example, see Article 26 on transparency obligations regarding online advertising, and Article 27 on transparency obligations regarding recommender systems.
Explanation of regulations
- Guidance on the interpretation and application of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, Section 5.2.6 (search engines)
- Guidance on the interpretation and application of the Consumer Rights Directive
- Guidance on the interpretation and application of the Unfair Contract Terms Directive
ACM: Websites for booking holiday accommodations now inform consumers better about the ranking of their offers
ACM, together with the other European consumer authorities and the European Commission, confronted holiday platforms about, among other aspects, information regarding the ranking of the offers on their websites. The companies have changed their websites, and now inform clearly about: * The selection process behind the search results; * Certain search results are given a higher ranking because the providers offering them have paid for that higher ranking; * The total price of the accommodation includes all unavoidable costs; * The availability of rooms on certain dates: no more suggestions of artificial scarcity; * Deals must be genuine deals; * Prices, for example, a price cannot be presented as a discount if that is not the case; * If the host is a professional or a private person.
More info: links and footnotes
- Sponsored ranking: effects on consumer welfare
- European Commission, Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, Lupiáñez-Villanueva, F., Boluda, A., Bogliacino, F., et al., Behavioural study on unfair commercial practices in the digital environment : dark patterns and manipulative personalisation : final report, Publications Office of the European Union, 2022.
The information in the introduction of this chapter is based on the following studies and articles:
- L. Marable, ‘Consumer reaction to learning the truth about how search engines work’, April 16, 2003 (consumerreports.org).