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Monday, September 14, 2009

Are Organic Search Results Next on FDA's Chopping Block?

In April, the FDA sent warning letters to several pharmaceutical companies citing paid search engine ads that it claimed violated FDA regulations (see "FDA's Actions Speak Louder than Its Words: On the Internet It's the Medium as Well as the Message!").

But what about organic -- ie, unpaid, "non-sponsored," natural -- search engine listings such as the following for Viagra (click on image for an enlarged view)? Are they next on FDA's chopping block?

That was a question posed by Julie Batten, e-marketing manager at Klick Communications (see "Search Marketing in the Pharma Industry").

"To date, organic listings haven't been considered promotional, and rightly so," said Batten.

Batten notes that pharma companies can determine the wording of organic listings by carefully crafting "meta" data (ie, TITLE and DESCRIPTION) within the header of HTML files that generate Web pages. Since "meta data isn't meant to be consumer-facing; it's meant to be [Search Engine] spider-facing," Batten argues that organic listing based on meta data "aren't within the jurisdiction of the regulating bodies to review and approve."

However, upon review of a few meta tags for Rx drug sites, I find that the wording seems to be crafted especially for consumers and not just for search engines. The following are some examples:

  • Meta tag TITLE: “Erectile Dysfunction (ED) Treatment - VIAGRA ® (sildenafil citrate)”
  • Meta tag DESCR: “Learn about prescription VIAGRA ® (sildenafil citrate), an erectile dysfunction (ED) treatment option that may help your ED."
Sponsored ad (top) vs. organic listing (bottom):

Concerta (http://www.concerta.net)
  • Meta tag TITLE: “CONCERTA® - ADHD Medication to Treat ADHD Symptoms in Children and Adults”
  • Meta tag DESCR: “Learn about ADHD in Children and Adults, treatment options, and how CONCERTA� can help manage ADHD symptoms.”
Sponsored ad (top) vs. organic listing (bottom):

  • Meta tag TITLE: “LATISSE® Home | LATISSE® — the first and only FDA-approved eyelash growth treatment”
  • Meta tag DESCR: “Grow your own natural lashes, LONGER, FULLER, DARKER. From the creators of BOTOX® Cosmetic.”
Sponsored ad (top) vs. organic listing (bottom)

In each case, the organic listing exactly matches the meta tags, which are clearly written with the searching consumer in mind. That is, each DESCR meta tag is actually a small direct-to-consumer (DTC) ad! However, none of these descriptions contains the fair balance (ie, side effect) information that FDA requires real-world DTC ads to include.

So, my question is: Will the FDA look upon organic search engine listings as direct-to-consumer ads because the meta tags are clearly written as ads, not merely descriptions of the landing page?


  1. Ugh. I hope this doesn't come to pass, but you never know. This would be a tough one to police for the FDA, as they'd have to look through the descriptions of every single page on a website since you can have a different description for every page. For a site with hundreds or thousands of pages, this would be a fool's errand.

    Of course, that little bit of text under the page title, often called a snippet, can come from a few sources and not just from the person who programmed the site. It's possible that the snippet comes from the Open Directory Project or (for Yahoo!), the Yahoo! Directory. The content in the latter two aren't necessarily controlled by the publisher (site creator). What then? Do you think the Open Directory Project is going to change its listings for the FDA? Don't bet on it.

    However, most of the time, this snippet comes from the META description programmed into the site by the publisher. That is, something they chose. They pick what they do for two reasons. First, because people quickly scan the listings of search results, they read the snippets before clicking through, so having something clear and concise is essential. Second, and maybe more importantly, the description is a small factor in search optimization. It only counts a bit since it's easy for people to manipulate it, but it does count, so having the keywords you are targeting in your description is important.

    Should the FDA go this route, there's a somewhat simple fix, but that's not ideal. Simply adding a little bit of code (see it here since I can't post it in the comments: http://su.pr/7W73UP) will prevent Google from displaying any snippet for your page (you can do the same for other search engines). However, even though it's not displayed, the description is still indexed, so it still should help your search optimization efforts. Unfortunately, this still eliminates the snippet meaning that searchers won't be able to see at a glance what your pages is about.

    This might all be academic anyway since pharma sites rarely even show up in search results except for their brand and generic name anyway. So, if there's no snippet, will anyone even notice? Here's how poorly some major pharma brands do in the search results: http://su.pr/4xEOCn

    Interesting idea, John. Curious to see what FDA comes up with next...sort of...

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the very useful feedback and information.

    Maybe this isn't something the FDA would want to regulate, but it could be a topic for guidelines for pharma eMarketing should the FDA ever decide to issue them. Or perhaps for pharmacos to consider as part of their own best practices guidelines.

    One such best practice guideline may be simply "Do not exaggerate benefit claims." The Latisse META tag is a case in point. It uses CAP text and does not qualify the claim in any way as does Viagra (eg, does not use the word "may" as in "may lead to fuller, longer, draker lashes").

  3. Also, it is not always true that the organic listing only shows up when you search on the brand name. A search on "eye lash medication," for example, results in the same organic listing for Latisse in the #1 position as does a search on "Latisse"

  4. That's simple to explain...when you search for eyelash medication, you get 69,900 results. When you search for, say, cholesterol medication, there are 5,600,000. Point is that there's very little competition for eyelash medication, so it's very simple to rise to the top. Where this is significant competition for keywords (i.e., lots of results), pharma sites do not fare very well.

  5. I get your point, but even a search on "cholesterol medication" gets LIPITOR the #4 position. We are talking about searches on medication for condition X, not searches in condition X alone. When you look at the keywords meta tag, "cholesterol-lowering medication" is #2 in the list. Thus, Pfizer expects "medication" to be a keyword in many searches.

  6. Actually they're #6, which gets only 4% of all clicks v. 42% for #1. Big difference. (#4 gets 6%). Sorry...a technicality, but I had to mention it. (http://su.pr/2KWo2j)

    And, yes, Pfizer might expect people to search for terms with "medication" in them, but they don't. That's not how people behave when searching. They first want information on a broad topic (high cholesterol) and then may move towards finding out about treatments. For searches related to cholesterol, the top 13 searches don't mention medication. http://su.pr/2KWo2j

    Here are the 13 terms related to cholesterol that people search for more than any term including cholesterol and medication. Looking at this list, maybe Pfizer should focus on providing information on alternative ways to lower cholesterol. They'd get a lot more traffic and probably a lot of people later on as patients who simply can't manage with the diet.


    cholesterol levels

    low cholesterol diet

    how to lower cholesterol

    high cholesterol

    foods that lower cholesterol

    diet to lower cholesterol

    lower cholesterol naturally

    high cholesterol and acid reflux recipes

    causes of high cholesterol

    list of foods that help to lower cholesterol

    food to eat to lower cholesterol

    cholesterol diet

  7. John,

    Insightful of you. It is entirely possible that FDA is indeed looking closely at organic SEO strategies. There is really nothing "organic" about these. They are ordinarily programmed and authored through various meta tags and page title tags. They're about as "organic" as a Jose Canseco home run. As a website operator, you undoubtedly know exactly how these work. FDA is a website operator as well, and they know exactly how these work. The fact that FDA has not focused on these does not mean they are not considered promotional. Anyone who has been around long enought knows that FDA's passiveness (or apparent passiveness) is not a reliable indication of FDA's legal interpretation (has anyone learned anything?). FDA could cite companies for the content of these as ads or could cite companies for not submitting these to FDA on a 2253 form as part of the webite or as a separate piece of promotional material. Failure to submit these could in and of itself be a violation regardless of the specifics of the content.

    ALL THAT SAID...Search Engine Optimization should NOT be treated as a traditional ad (in my opinion). Companies have a reasonable right to ensure search engines return search results that are useful AND ACCURATE descriptions of a website for which a search can result. If FDA were to treat SEO identically to sponsored links, it would be (in my strong opinion) utterly silly. Assuming that results are a simple factual description of a web page, and not overtly claimy or promotional and are not false or misleading, they should be allowed by FDA. Even if FDA were to take the position that you suspect, they should clarify their position to industry first, prior to issuing enforcement. This is clearly a place where technology has outpaced regulation and where arcane interpretations will lead to unreasonable restrictions (and obtuse search results). FDA could demonstrate its thoughfulness and wisdom by providing a reasonable guidance or statement to industry on this small (bite-size and digestible) but important issue. Heck, I'll write the guideline for them.


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