7 Things to Know about Keeping Your Content Legal
April 18, 2011 4 Comments
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Every SEO and web marketing copywriter should become familiar with the laws and guidelines that govern their industry.
Unfortunately, most copywriters don’t do this.
The first step for most SEO and Internet advertising companies is arranging the architecture of a website in a way that is “search engine friendly.”
This involves things like adding ALT text to images, optimizing your websites coding for easy search engine indexing, using geography-specific pages, and more.
As time goes on, however, a website will also need to create and update content regularly, as well as run a continuous advertising campaign.
SEO and web marketing copywriters need to understand that keeping their content within the legal boundaries of Internet advertising and marketing is of EXTREME IMPORTANCE – not only to keep yourself and the company you work for out of trouble, but also to make sure your client stays out of trouble too!
7 Things Every Copywriter Should Know
Here is a (far from exhaustive) list of legal issues that SEO and web marketing copywriters all across the Internet unwittingly struggle with.
1. Substantiation – How do I substantiate my claims?
Making claims that are unsubstantiated is one of the biggest and easiest mistakes a web marketing copywriter can make.
When you are creating legal content for a product or service, ANY claim you make – whether expressed or implied – needs to have credible evidence to back it up.
If you write a statement that says “This product/service will prevent colds,” then you MUST have evidence that can substantiate the claim!
When creating content that has an implied claim – something that isn’t directly stated but suggested – such as: “This product/service kills germs that cause colds,” then a consumer can reasonably conclude that the product will help prevent colds.
Therefore, if content either directly says something or it reasonably suggests something, you MUST be able to support the claim!
2. Deception – What makes an advertisement deceptive?
A good SEO and web marketing copywriter should know that writing persuasive content doesn’t mean deceiving the reader.
Content can be considered “deceptive” by FTC standards for two reasons:
- If there is a misrepresentation, omission, or other practice that is likely to mislead a reasonably acting consumer, AND
- If the information misrepresented or omitted is material, or important, to the decision of whether or not to buy and use the product.
This means that truthful text in the body of a page WILL NOT make up for a headline that stretches the truth.
Because people often don’t read an entire advertisement or webpage, having a deceptive headline may be enough to lead them to purchase a product or service that they otherwise would not have bought.
When you’ve finished writing content for a webpage, ask yourself these questions:
- Is everything clearly represented?
- How important is the omitted information?
- Should the public have common knowledge of this product or service?
- How conspicuous is the qualifying information?
3. Unfairness – What makes an advertisement unfair?
Content is considered “unfair” by FTC standards if it:
- Is likely to cause injury that the consumer could not reasonably avoid
- Violates established public policy
- Is unethical or unscrupulous
An excellent example of unfairness in marketing is the infamous advertising campaign for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that featured Joe the Camel.
Even though the FTC never stopped the advertisement campaign from running, it was vilified by advocacy groups and the American Medical Association for trying to make smoking appeal to young children through the use of a cartoon character.
A good copywriter should be able to make a product or service appealing without crossing these sorts of boundaries.
4. Environmental Claims – When can I make environmental claims about my product/service?
This is another big issue that many SEO and web marketing copywriters fail to understand.
Many copywriters are eager to explain the benefits of a product, yet they cross the legal line and step into the area of “unfair and deceptive practices.”
The need for substantiation in this area of Internet advertising is HUGE!
An environmental claim with ANYTHING (this relates to everything from the words in the content to the symbols, logos, and depictions that are displayed) NEEDS to be thoroughly qualified.
You can’t make any kind of environmental claim—whether one that is expressly stated or one that is implied through a logo or picture—that does not have PLENTY OF EVIDENCE to back it up.
Additionally, you don’t want to be deceptive.
You can’t label trash bags you’re selling as “recyclable” without properly explaining what exactly makes them “recyclable.”
Even if the trash bag is 100% recyclable, trash bags are not separated from the rest of trash at the landfill, so the term “recyclable” indicates there is an environmental benefit when one doesn’t actually exist.
If the trash bag was made from recyclable material, then you’d be able to qualify things by saying, “made from recyclable materials,” if you have the evidence to show for it.
5. Disclosures – What do I need to say in a disclosure?
One of the most common mistakes that an SEO and web marketing copywriter makes is to believe that including a disclosure allows them to make any sort of claim they like without getting into trouble.
This is not true.
First of all, a disclosure won’t make misleading content any less deceiving.
Second, the disclosure needs to be very obvious to the consumer—so having small print at the bottom of an advertisement or webpage may not be enough to keep you out of trouble.
Disclosures are a good insurance measure, but they don’t let you ignore Internet advertising laws!
6. Testimonials and Endorsements – How can I use testimonials and endorsements to advertise?
Testimonials and endorsements can be a powerful way to persuade a consumer to buy something, but you need to be careful about keeping them honest.
Testimonials and endorsements must reflect truthful opinions, results, or experiences AND the message must be an accurate representation that would not be considered deceptive if it was stated directly by the company.
In an effort to stop deceiving testimonials and endorsements on the Internet, the FTC has released guidelines demanding that any blogger or affiliate marketer with a material connection to a seller – bloggers/marketers being compensated in some way for what they write – must CLEARLY disclose information about their relationship to the seller.
The FTC found that not clearly disclosing this connection can be deceptive because these paid posts may mislead consumers by appearing to reflect the views of ordinary consumers or independent reviewers when they are really just a form of paid Internet advertising.
7. Comparative Advertising – Can I mention my competitor?
Proclaiming your product/service’s superiority can be an effective technique for advertising, but this is a method of promotion that carries some serious risk.
It’s perfectly legal to compare to your product/service to a competitor’s. The FTC supports this by saying it encourages innovation and competition.
However, there are strict rules about how you can engage in comparative advertising and following those rules won’t always protect you.
Even if you’re well within the legal boundaries of Internet advertising techniques, it won’t stop a competitor from taking you to court and outspending you.
So if you’re considering bashing a competitor that has a history of taking people to court, then I’d think twice before running that kind of campaign.
If you believe that the risk is worth it, then go right ahead—but you should still make sure you are playing by the rules.
Here is a nonexclusive list of ways to stay on the good side of the law:
- Don’t be deceptive and mislead the consumer when making the comparison (this should be obvious).
- Make sure your claims about the competitor’s product/service are true – substantiating your claims is something you should always be doing.
- Always use the ® if the competitor’s logo is a registered trademark and don’t alter their logo in any way.
- Include a disclosure that explains you are not affiliated with the company you are comparing yourself to. This isn’t necessary, but consumers may be deceived about your relation to the competitor.
Understanding the Rules
Many SEO and web marketing companies use talented and persuasive copywriters, yet those writers have no understanding of policy and legality when they are creating content for the web.
They assume that they know what goes into making an advertisement legal simply based upon their own experiences.
This is an unfortunate side effect of the constant bombardment of advertising on the Internet – because we see so much of it, we automatically assume that all of it is legal.
As an SEO and web marketing copywriter who writes content and advertisements for a business, you NEED to be familiar with the laws and guidelines of these organizations and companies (and any others that may regulate the industry you’re writing for).
You need to understand that something acceptable to Google – like using a variation of the phrase “wholesale prices” – is false advertisement under BBB guidelines and can lead to trouble for your business and clients.
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is the government watchdog set up to protect consumers from false advertising that may be unlawful, unfair, or deceptive.
The Federal Trade Commission Act states that a representation, omission, or practice is false advertising and unfair or deceptive if it is likely to:
- Mislead consumers, AND
- Affect consumers’ behavior or decisions about the product or service.
While these two all-encompassing statements may seem very broad, the intent is to ensure the legitimacy of all forms of advertising, marketing, and promotion (whether it is on print, radio, TV, or the Internet).
Odds are if you’re working with an established business, they’re probably a member of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or a similar business accreditation organization.
The business owner that you’re working for would probably never do anything that could jeopardize their BBB accreditation—the BBB seal of approval tells customers that their company can be trusted.
An SEO and web marketing content writer that is unfamiliar with the BBB’s guidelines for keeping content legal, however, might cross the line of false advertising and that can cause serious damage that you don’t want to be responsible for.
Google/Bing/Other Search Engines
Of all the guidelines that you should be familiar with, these are probably the most important.
Search engines have their own web marketing policies that outline whether a webpage or advertisement is acceptable or not.
If your content violates their rules, the penalties can range from refusal to run the ads to disabling the domain. These are two easy ways to lose a client a lot of money and that’s something you never want to do.
See for Yourself
Internet law is in a state of constant fluctuation. Besides being knowledgeable about what false advertising is, the best thing you can do when you’re unsure of something is to talk to a professional.
If you’re an SEO and web marketing copywriter looking for further clarifications and information straight from the horse’s mouth, then you should check out some of the resources linked below.
- Advertising Guidance from the FTC
- The Federal Trade Commission Act
- The BBB’s Code of Advertising
- Google Advertising Policies
- Bing Ad and Content Style Guidelines
- Yahoo! Display Advertising Guidelines
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