When it comes to ads, Google Assistant may soon have to make changes

Google's pay-to-play business presents a problem with voice

Google Assistant may have an ad problem

The Google Assistant may have an ad problem when it comes to ordering services using voice, a new report claims. Buckle up, because this gets a little complicated.

Right now, if you ask the Assistant to search for services - say, a plumber - it will return several local recommendations. But rather than simply pull the closest companies in your proximity, the results are taken from a database of verified companies in Google's Guarantee program, which requires partaking companies to prove they're fully legitimate and insured.

And according to Reuters, this could be seen as violating disclosure rules. Google argues that it does not need to explicitly call out results as ads because it isn't paid to provide these results.

That's true. However - and this is where things get murky - companies have to register with the Guarantee program if they want to run local adverts with Google. So while they haven't directly paid Google to have their results read out, they're placed from a database used by businesses because they want to create ads.

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According to the Reuters report, this link to Google's advertising business could spell trouble for the company, though Google refutes this strongly. A company spokesperson told us in a statement: “The ranking of local providers listed on the Assistant is based on relevancy and not monetized. Any local provider can become eligible to show up in those results by going through our verification process and earning the Google Guarantee badge - which is completely free."

Google told us that it is not surfacing any local ads with the Assistant right now. It also said that advertisers do not need to earn Google Guarantee badges unless they want to be part of the Google Local Services section on mobile and desktop.

The Reuters piece acknowledges that these results are not paid-for, but points out the real problem here is that they stem from a database which includes a lot of companies who do pay Google for exposure. So if that service provider does so happen to be one that's also benefitting from Google's search ads, you won't be notified if you've accessed it through the Assistant.

Furthermore, in some cases the Assistant will provide results through partner search services HomeAdvisor and Porch, but fails to mention that these services charge businesses for custom leads. Google didn't comment on this part.

Whether or not Google thinks it's breaking any rules, the Federal Trade Commission is the one who gets the say. In 2013, the FTC sent Google a letter clarifying that "regardless of the precise form search may take in the future, the long-standing principle of making advertising distinguishable from natural results will remain applicable".

That clearly applies to spoken results, and if customers begin complaining to the FTC about Google violating these principles, it may be forced to take action. Reuters says no complaints have been lodged so far, but there's an obvious problem for Google here - and as it continues to move into our homes and create revenue through voice, it's only going to get bigger.

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