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The Search Engine That Could


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-08-02-2002

Search engine positioning (SEP) is a critical component of any online marketing plan. It is the art and science of increasing a website's visibility among major search engines and directories with a strategically defined set of key words.

Search engine positioning (SEP) is a critical component of any online marketing plan. It is the art and science of increasing a website's visibility among major search engines and directories with a strategically defined set of key words.

By using relevant phrases in the major search properties, companies can achieve the kind of positioning that will reach visitors looking for products and services.

This article outlines how pharma companies can build an effective SEP strategy to inform and educate an online audience and still satisfy FDA regulations.

A Harris Interactive study demonstrated that 75 percent of adults who use the internet-amounting to about 100 million consumers-seek healthcare information. The Boston Consulting Group found that 65 percent of patients who look for health information online consult search engines. Yet, despite the evidence that the internet is the most cost-effective channel for creating consumer demand for prescription medications, most pharma sites are not fully optimized for search engines.

Building A Track

Of the 65 percent of consumers who look online for answers to their health queries, 24 percent start with health portals and only 11 percent start with disease-specific websites. Those who favor particular health-related sites report that they initially found them through general search engines. Because most people who seek health information on the web are uncertain where to begin, search engines are the best tools to point them in the right direction.

Those data demonstrate a need for pharma companies to make comprehensive search-visibility strategies part of their online marketing initiatives. In the competitive pharma marketplace, individual product sites not only contend with direct competitors but also with medical portals, online pharmacies, and other health information resources. So, web-based opportunities to communicate all facets of a product and brand are also special challenges.

Mass Communication

Sending a balanced message about a product is one of the first hurdles. Companies must

  • choose key words that are popular with consumers and best represent a site's content

  • create meta data for a site

  • write descriptions for, and submit a site according to, the written and unwritten guidelines of a search engine company.

FDA views all pharma promotion in the same light, whether it's an online ad, a TV spot, a newspaper advertisement, or a brochure. Although all meta data are not publicly viewable, they are part of the overall website presentation, making it open to FDA scrutiny. So pharma companies must ensure that website meta data adhere to FDA guidelines.

May The Real Competitor Rise

Search engines have lead times of up to several months for indexing and refreshing their databases. Changing messaging or grappling with an incorrect listing in a directory such as Yahoo! is an arduous process. To avoid that calamity, getting it right the first time should be the goal.

Timing is also an important issue with directories. A listing with a human-edited directory is difficult to alter, because editors have backlogs of submissions. A company may submit a request for a listing with, say, Yahoo! and, despite a cost of $299 annually, the listing that actually appears in search results may look somewhat different.

Yahoo! guidelines have character limits for their descriptions, and each editor has a different style for representing websites within a category. A listing could be detrimental to a pharma company if the drug's indications are poorly explained, leaving it open to FDA scrutiny. The company could be forced to pursue an appeal process with Yahoo!, resulting in a lengthy-and likely unsuccessful-campaign to have the listing changed.

Paid submissions take precedence over requests to change a listing for free. Therefore, a request could be pushed off for months and, in some cases, never be addressed at all.

Critical Connections

Links are a vital factor in determining a site's value, according to search engine companies. Pharma companies must consider a host of factors, including

  • where a link originates

  • what a site links to

  • the text surrounding a link

  • the link's title.

Although links pointing to a site can have a positive impact, there are cases in which they can be detrimental to a company's online reputation and invite FDA scrutiny. A health partner with appropriate content may be linked to a site that has gone out of business and let its domain registration expire. Many adult content website operators are quick to purchase expired IP addresses of well-known sites and fill them with salacious content. A reputable brand could be hurt by that association, and search engine companies may penalize a client that is affiliated with one of those sites, even through links.

Search Engine Query Results

Meta data are an integral and often overlooked element of a website. Although primarily invisible to the user, the data are central to the presence of a website within the search engines. Meta data should be the first coding on every website page and should be considered food for search engine spiders, providing important information about a site, including

  • a page's title

  • a brief description of a site's offerings

  • key words that can be associated with a page.

When search engine "spiders" visit a site, they automatically "grab" and place the most focus on the code closest to the top of the page. That code supplies the spider with what it views as the most important information about the page. If a site lacks meta data, it may be indexed with a description compiled from navigational links or source code rather than from a carefully written description targeted at users.

Pharma-Only Challenges

As of May 2002, FDA had not issued direct guidance regarding pharma's communication of prescription information over the internet. To date, the bulk of FDA action taken has been aimed at online pharmacies. In the meantime, as FDA draws up guidelines, pharma companies reaching out to online consumers through search engines must comply with the same offline regulations and guidelines that govern their product marketing.

Ads for pharma products are required to contain "information in brief summary related to side effects, contraindications, and effectiveness." Current FDA guidelines dictate that promotional materials present a "fair balance" between information about the product's effectiveness and its risks. Additionally, all information must be communicated in consumer-friendly language.

Those requirements create special challenges for marketers and must be factored into all SEP marketing tactics. In the past, many of the elements with which FDA has taken issue have been related to presentation, and many site owners fail to realize that all elements of the website, including the hidden HTML code, are part of the overall presentation.

Another misconception is that search engine positioning needs to be completed only once and the results will last. To ensure continued positive results, SEP involves many tasks that must be consistently performed, tracked, analyzed, and reassessed. The need to monitor and closely follow the workings of the major search properties is especially critical given the dynamic nature of the search engine industry.

A website might rely on a large amount of traffic from a particular search engine, for instance, but if that engine goes out of business, not only will visibility in that search field decline, but new traffic from it will disappear as well.

Through partnerships, search engines share databases. If there is an error in one database listing, it will be visible in the partner's results as well, leaving a company open for scrutiny.

Creating Lists

A directory is different from a search engine in that meta data do not affect the way a site is listed in its search properties. A search directory, such as the Open Directory Project or Yahoo!, is a human-edited entity in which sites are reviewed and added manually to the database according to the editor's interpretation of the site's offerings. Listings within the major search directories are important because of the multitude of partnerships between search engines and directories. An open directory project, which is an uncommon search destination for most consumers, feeds more than 100 other sites, including one of the most popular search engines, Google. The relationships within the internet search space are ever-changing, mandating coverage in every possible arena.

Human-edited directory submissions are open to subjective viewpoints and errors. Because directories impose stringent limits on description lengths, website owners are left with few words to accurately describe a product, its efficacy, its use, and its possible side effects. It is challenging, to say the least, to create a description that is enticing for users, yet adheres to FDA's multifaceted guidelines. The best approach is to maintain fair balance in a manner that is both informative and appealing.

Given the many tasks associated with SEP, pharma companies should set guidelines in advance to prevent problems resulting from a backlash after the fact. As with most pharma companies, it is the internal medical review board's role to ensure that all related internet content-meta data, directory listings, and incoming and outgoing links-conform to FDA requirements.

Strategic Resources

A well-executed online SEP strategy provides positive returns for both pharma companies and site users. Although it is still evolving, the internet has proven itself a strong marketing vehicle with a significant ability to educate, inform, and guide worldwide audiences on innumerable subjects, including healthcare and pharma products.

The initial time and resources that pharma companies invest in a comprehensive online search engine marketing strategy will reap long-term benefits. As the internet becomes a more useful health research tool for consum-ers, the need for pharma sites to be located by search engines will grow. Pharmaceutical companies must transform their search engine marketing efforts to make product websites a resource for patients rather than a source for FDA scrutiny.

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