As more consumers search for health information and share their treatment experiences on blogs and discussion forums, these sites are ranking higher in keyword searches for branded drugs.
"Our findings show that blogs and discussion forums are becoming more visible," said Lance Helgeson, vice president of interactive PR firm v-Fluence. "They're showing up in search results for pharma brands when consumers look for the brands themselves, as well as for treatments and side effects that relate to a given therapeutic area."
According to Helgeson, the study looked at the visible search results—the first three pages of a search on the top three search engines with a few proprietary algorithms mixed in. This technique determines what pages users are most likely to actually click on when they do a search.
In the study, v-Fluence compared the ranking of various searches related to drugs in the cholesterol category, calculating the percentage of a cholesterol brand's online presence consisting of blog or forum references. Below are the top three drugs in each online area.
Most Blog Share:
Most Forum Share:
"While these spaces are not high in number, their influence can be profound due to the popularity of a given blog or forum, the dynamics of Web 2.0, the degree to which influencers pay attention to them, and their increasing encroachment into Web 1.0 search results," said Helgeson.
But the paramount concern for pharma is that most of the online chat tends to cast the drugs in an unfavorable light, often discussing adverse reactions and off-label uses. While some might say that any publicity is good publicity, the pharmaceutical industry goes to considerable lengths to control what is written about its products.
Another problem is that drugmakers don't involve themselves in these online spaces beyond advertising—FDA regulations prohibit them from doing so. In addition, the placement of these ads can be problematic. For example, keyword ads sometimes appear on sites promoting litigation or alternative treatments.
Helgeson recommends that pharma companies deal with the inherent Web 2.0 issues by issuing official research to counter mis- or disinformation—or at least start keeping track of the talk about their products in the blogosphere.