Thursday, May 13, 2010

Should Google Allow Pharma an Exception to Its Ban on Redirect URLs? (UPDATED)

Back in April 2009, I suggested that FDA might go after pharma marketers for using paid search redirects in Google Adwords (see "The Next FDA Concern May be the Use of 'Redirect' URLs"). Such ads use visible URLs such as "" but, when clicked, lead to or Such an is considered to be "unbranded" and beyond FDA regulation. That is, it can say "Stay harder longer with this treatment for erectile dysfuntion" and lead directly to the branded website.

The problem with that strategy is that Google's Adword policy forbids the use of redirect URLs -- for most advertisers. It appears that Google was making an exception for the pharmaceutical industry (see "Redirect URLs in Adwords: Who Knew What When?").

Last week I thought Google may have rescinded this exception. Tyler Ransburgh of What's Your Digital IQ Blog wrote about his problem using a redirect URL in a pharma ad. "I work in pharma," said Tyler, "I have an exception to the rule. Right? Well, I reached out to Google to get an answer on why I am getting caught in this web" (see "Google blocks Pharma paid search redirects")

When Tyler did reach out to Google, here's the reply he got:
"In response to advertiser and user feedback, and in an effort to provide relevant results and a high quality experience for our users, we have made the decision to no longer allow certain exceptions to our display URL policy. Please note that this amendment to our policy applies to all advertisers, regardless of previous exceptions for, or acceptance of, any campaigns. To provide a quality experience for our users and partners, the display URL policy will be strictly enforced."
I'd like to think that my blog posts were part of the "feedback" that Google considered.

Since then we've gotten some feedback indicating that Google has NOT changed its policy regarding pharma's use of URL redirects in Adwords. See this Pharma and SEM Marketing Blog post by SEM Dave Anderson who indirectly received this comment from Google: "Our policy has not changed: pharmaceutical manufacturers continue to have an exception to allow a URL redirect, which is not currently recognized by our automated system." Which seems to directly contradict the comment received by Tyler Ransburgh from a Google Adword support team person who advised Tyler to "be assured that you have reached the appropriate AdWords support team for your AdWords related concern and I’ll be unable to escalate your issue further." Tyler, you see, had asked to speak to this person's supervisor and was rebuffed!

I also received an email from Aaron Stein, someone who claims to be part of Google's PR department. I present the full email message:
Hi John,

This is Aaron Stein from Google PR. I noticed your post this morning and wanted to reach out to you because it is not accurate. If you do a search for cholesterol you'll see that our policy has not changed. I've attached a screenshot to show this as well.

If you wouldn't mind, can you add a correction to your post with the statement below? Happy to chat further about this.

"Our policy has not changed: pharmaceutical manufacturers continue to have an exception to allow a URL redirect, which is not currently recognized by our automated system. All pharmaceutical manufacturers' search ads campaigns continue to run, unchanged, today."

Thanks John, I'll be in touch.

Aaron Stein
Google | Global Communications & Public Affairs

The question, however, is Should Pharma Advertisers Use Redirect URLs in Search Engine Ads? I ask you help to answer this question in a NEW survey, which asks your opinion of this practice. It asks specifically to indicate your level of agreement/disagreement with the following statements about Pharma's use of paid search engine ads:
  • Regardless of search engine rules that may allow pharma advertisers to use redirect URLs ("vanity URLs"), pharma should ONLY use display URLs in ads that ACCURATELY reflect the landing page URLs of the websites being advertised (ie, pharma should obey the rules established for all other advertisers).
  • Pharma advertisers should be allowed an exception to search engine rules regarding redirect URLs because FDA regulations prevent them from displaying a drug brand name in short ads, even when the brand name is only part of the display URL.
  • Redirect URLs should NEVER be used by pharma advertisers because they mislead the consumer into believing that the links will take them to independent disease information websites, not branded drug sites.
Results of this survey may be summarized in Pharma Marketing News. After you answer a few short questions, you will be able to see the summary of all responses to date. No comments or other identifying information is included in the summary.

Your comments are confidential (anonymous) unless you specifically provide your contact information at the end of the survey and allow us to attribute comments to you personally.

Should Pharma Advertisers Use Redirect URLs in Search Engine Ads?

Take the survey Now!


  1. Hi, John: Thanks for this post re: Google policy - it has certainly gotten the attention of folks like us in the pharma marketing world.

    Our Search Marketing team has looked into it closely, as it would affect MANY of our clients' current and planned campaigns.

    It looks like there is some confusion, because we're hearing different information from Google than what you and GSW understand to be true.

    Here's the statement we just put out internally from Dave on our [] Search Marketing team - wanted to you be aware:

    "This morning, I have received a few calls and e-mails about a blog post by John Mack stating that Google is no longer allowing the use of vanity URLs in paid search ads (

    Our team has reached out to reps at Google in regards to this blog post and I wanted to quickly confirm for all that this is not accurate. From our reps:

    “Our policy has not changed: pharmaceutical manufacturers continue to have an exception to allow a URL redirect, which is not currently recognized by our automated system.”

    We have recently made many submissions with the use of vanity URLs for our clients, and these submissions are still accurate. I assure everyone that we will receive notification from our reps at Google (and Yahoo/Bing) should there be any changes to the policies as it relates to paid search advertising. If we hear anything, we will inform all teams accordingly."

    ** Note the Google comment "which is not currently recognized by our automated system." **

    The other blogger's problem is that he was trying to use Google's automated system to implement the redirect. Our team has been doing pharma search marketing for years and have relationships with the reps, and they tell me that in order to get the "exception" redirect you have to put the request in directly with Google, working with your rep. They then add it into your own system (and sometimes that doesn't even work). There's a special process that perhaps wasn't being followed. This is further validated by a comment to the "Digital IQ" blog post.

    So ... Hopefully it's a Pharma Search Marketing Crisis averted ... it's apparently a misunderstanding and/or technical glitch!

    Wendy Blackburn
    ePharma Rx

  2. Wendy,

    Thanks for the clarification.


  3. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Wow. They find ways to sleaze it up no matter what medium they use. Impressive, pharma.

  4. AMH in Ohio4:22 PM

    I wonder why Pharma gets treated differently than any other advertising group? Doesn't make sense to me.

  5. Anonymous10:09 AM

    Pharma gets treated differently because if you mention the product AND what it is used for (eg cholesterol lowering), you have to include information on side effects, etc. This is impossible in a PPC ad with a hard character limit. You can mention the product and say "Go to our official site" or words to that effect. Search for a big pharma product and you will find examples of this. However, the more valuable searches are searches based on conditions or symptoms. If you want to direct this traffic to your site, you can't generally use the product site URL because this URL generally contains the name of the product. Long story short: You can't have a PPC ad that references a condition or its symptoms, AND include the name of the product. Unfortunately, these ads that reference the condition or symptoms are the most valuable and important PPC ads. Thus, you use a vanity URL.

  6. The question is not WHY pharma gets an exception, but whether or not using it is misleading to the consumer. After all, that is the reason Google generally does not allow redirect URLs. Some of these ads may not mention "treatment." For example, the 2 ads shown on my survey page ( mention how you can get information about hypertension but lead to branded Rx drug sites. Maybe that's not what the consumer expected.

  7. What nobody seems to be asking is whether the FDA should update their rules to deal with this situation/medium. Whatever the answer it should be consistent whether it appears on Google, Yahoo!, etc.


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