Saturday, April 11, 2009

Redirect URLs in Adwords: Who Knew What When?

In previous posts, I discussed the use of "redirect" URLs in Google adwords for pharmaceutical product websites (see The Next FDA Concern May be the Use of "Redirect" URLs).

This practice is USUALLY forbidden by Google policies: "Your display URL must accurately reflect the URL of the website you're advertising," says this policy. "It should match the domain of your landing page so that users will know which site they'll be taken to when they click on your ad."

It appears that Google has granted pharmaceutical companies an exception to this policy AND has been doing so for a number of years:
"We just heard back from Google this morning," said Jeff Hill of MedThink Communications. "Their 'policy board' ruled that they will make an exception just for pharmaceutical companies and allow non-branded URLs in paid search ads to be redirected to branded websites."

"For years it has been standard practice for Google to make this exception for our pharmaceutical clients," said Eileen O'Brien of Compass Healthcare Communications.
This raises more questions than it answers:

If Google was making this exception for years, how come so few experts knew about this? Many members of the ePharma Pioneer Club that I've been talking to, at least, had not heard of this and like Jeff had to call Google to confirm it.

Was Google making exceptions on a case-by-case basis up 'til now, but now is making the exception the rule for ALL pharma?

If some pharma companies were already taking advantage of the exception, why didn't the 14 companies cited last week by the FDA do it? It's hard to imagine that not a single one of these companies would NOT have known about the exception to the rule that O'Brien claims was going on for years.

If the 14 companies KNEW that Google would give them an EXCEPTION, then what was their motive in using the brand name in the adwords if they could have used a redirect URL instead? Did they knowingly use the "one-click" rule -- which everyone knew was not a rule at all -- as an excuse to get an extra bonus by linking the brand name to the benefit WITHOUT including the risks?

Did the FDA know that pharmaceutical companies had the option of using redirect URLs in their ads? If so, the FDA may have said to itself, "These guys could have easily used a redirect URL but they decided to use the brandname URL instead. Let's show them that we are not dummies and quash this practice right now!"

Many questions...not the least of which is the use of redirect URLs at best a bad user experience and at worst false advertising? That's a question raised by Robert Kadar of

Follow me and see the reaction to this on Twitter...

1 comment:

  1. John,

    For years companies have been doing this and legal and regulatory people have reviewed and approved redirecting URLs. The basic premise is that the Law (at least the way FDA interprets it) would trump any vendor's policy (unless that would cause a legal violation in itself). The only way for Google to sell advertising in this manner is to make an exception or don't sell the advertising to drug companies. The exception is not a violation of the law or regulations (only google policy) but, (at least as confirmed by FDA's recent letters) the use of the drugname and describing the site in any meaningful way will cause you to make a representation of the efficacy or safety of the product. Presto! You have an ad that FDA says needs a lot more than you can fit in the sponsored link.

    Anti spam legislation has made certain emails illegal if their subject lines are deceptive in any way. Companies have been wary that at some point this principle could be applied to search results as well. Though these do not meet the definition of SPAM. I'm not an expert in this area, but I've bumped into this area a bunch of times will evaluating advertising and promotional materials. Further, it is clear that the sponsored links are commercial messages or advertisements, and therefore are probably not going to be considered deceptive on first blush. There's probably some level of reasonableness that can be applied here.

    What is odd is how much mileage this whole issue is getting. Companies are sort of in a damned if you do or damned if you do place. Also, vendors can be pretty aggressive in their proposals which is not terribly helpful. You're right John, there is no "one-click" rule, but there is no "two click" rule and their ain't no "no-click" rule either. Further, as I've written about myself on my own blog, FDA if you notice, cites both advertising and labeling regulations in these fourteen letters. If they considered the sponsored links either "advertisements" or "labeling" they would have cited one regulation or the other. They didn't. They cited both, on the premise that one of them must apply, but they themselves have not decided which. While FDA's citations may ultimately be reasonable as to the ad content based on precedents that they themselves have set, they highlight their own blurry view of the world with their approach.

    One one hand this makes an excellent example of why current regulations are fundamentally deficient, in that they cannot even accruately define internet content under the current regulations. If you can't define it as a primary task, how do you then regulate it? I just wonder though if this is really a compelling enough issue to carry the flag for new guidance, regulation, or reform.

    John Murray


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