If there's one industry that has a mismatch between its potential to perform in organic search and its actual performance, I'd argue that it is the pharmaceutical space. In this context I'm talking about the legitimate players that have significant budgets for product development and marketing. And while many in the industry will point to regulatory restrictions to explain their poor performance, I have a different belief – pharmaceutical companies still don't really understand how search engines work. What's worse, I don't think that SEO agencies get that their pharmaceutical clients don't get search engines. And so contracts are signed with both parties feeling elated. And then the work actually begins and the hoped for results never quite materialize.
Sites Are Treated Like They're Standalone Offline Marketing Promotions
New year, new budget? Build a new website. Different audience segments? Target each one with a separate website. Branded vs. unbranded content? Build a website for each. The math tells you that a single product could have five or six different websites (i.e., domains) all being serviced by the same budget that is barely enough to obtain traction for one site in a competitive market.
Instead, use a maximum of two domains – I think with creativity you could figure out how to use just one – to build out branded and unbranded content. Hit all the relevant market segments with these two sites. If there's a new effort or market segment you want to target that needs to be separated from previous efforts, consider a sub-folder.
Sites Are Too Small
The general consensus is that all other things equal, a site with x pages will underperform a site with 10x pages. In the pharmaceutical space, sites are almost never expanded, but rather they're torn down entirely and replaced with newly written content that, in many cases, isn't any broader or deeper than the original content. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent and in the end the search engines don't see anything different than before.
Instead, develop a content archiving strategy. Does moving old content to a different folder make sense? Do you add another level to the navigation? Can you just add pages to increase the breadth or depth of keyword coverage without touching existing pages so they don't have to be re-reviewed? This isn't a new problem – news and magazine sites have figured it out already, so learn from them.
Budgets Are Overweighted Towards Advertising
Not surprisingly and with no insult intended for my digital marketing friends, but creating a banner and deploying it out on ad networks or creating paid search ads is much easier than attempting to outrank a site like WebMD for a medical term. And don't even get me started on how much is spent on design and site development on sites that barely establish a footprint in organic search results.
Instead, allocate more funding to the SEO effort. And I'm not even talking about much. When you're spending millions on display and paid search, surely another $100,000 for SEO isn't going to matter much to those efforts. If you follow through, you will recoup this money and more, which can then be put into improving the design.
Applying Paid Search Rules to Organic Search
Pharmaceutical companies like to play it safe. And in many ways their behavior is justified as the FDA can levy significant fines if they deem that regulations have been violated. The problem here is that there are no specific guidelines for organic search listings. What results is that the paid search advertising rules (and I use the term loosely because such rules are inferred) are applied to organic search. What this means is you end up with page titles and descriptions that don't inform or compel a click.
Instead, I would suggest that pharmaceutical companies reassess their assumptions when it comes to SEO. Keep in mind that the search engines make the final decision as to what is used as a title or a description and if you don't provide "good" ones, the listing that's assembled could just as easily imply something that would violate the same regulations you're trying to follow. And I'm not even suggesting that a company roll the dice to see if the FDA notices, but rather to being just slightly more aggressive with their SEO efforts, say with link building, could easily result in big gains.
Fail to Leverage Powerful Corporate Sites
Press releases and other media mentions typically link to a company's corporate site. And yet many pharmaceutical companies fail to capitalize on this opportunity to obtain rankings for their products – much of the time their product content is buried in a PDF.
Instead of building microsites on separate domains, build microsites within a sub-folder of the corporate domain. This will provide instant link juice and allow the content to piggyback off of broader marketing efforts. And this doesn't preclude the use of microsites if they are deemed necessary. The corporate site can simply augment the microsites and provide additional coverage in the SERPs.
For someone that works outside of pharmaceuticals, the above undoubtedly sounds like the recommendations people were talking about years ago. And they'd be right. What's more, easily 90 percent of the pharmaceutical companies I have worked with are making these mistakes. To put it another way, any company willing to adjust their course could easily become the leader in their space. I can't think of another industry where taking the pole position would be so easy.
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.
March 19, 2014