Pharma Search Ads Plummeted After FDA Warnings

  |  October 2, 2009   |  Comments

ComScore finds ad exposures fell 84 percent following a regulatory crackdown.

Pharmaceutical marketers suffered an 84 percent drop in "sponsored link exposure" in the three months following a search advertising crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to ComScore.

Many pharma companies have largely abandoned paid links on Google, Yahoo, and other general search engines after receiving warnings from the FDA that those ads lack sufficient disclosure, according to ComScore VP John Mangano.

"They're saying, 'We're not going to spend on this because we got our hands slapped,'" Mangano said.

But Mangano said that for many drug brands, optimizing drug-specific Web sites to appear high in organic search results seems to work as well. "If you're not getting any incremental traffic from paid search, you have to ask yourself if it's even worth doing."

Mangano isn't sure where the online ad dollars are going that used to flow to search, but it's possible they're not going anywhere. "Pharma companies are waiting for more clarity from the FDA, and the discussion isn't over," he said. "There's a lot of conservatism going on."

In the spring, the FDA sent 14 warning letters to drug companies that provided -- depending on how you view it -- either not enough or too much information on their products in paid search ads.

If there's not enough space, in any medium, to include all the risks of taking a drug, the FDA wants no mention of what conditions it's intended to treat -- its "indications," in medical jargon. Squeezing any risk information into a typical paid search format, which has less space than a haiku, is impossible. Up until March, drug companies had assumed a "one-click rule," which meant that it was okay to have both the drug's name and its indications in the paid-search ad, with risk information on the first page of the click-through. But the FDA disagreed, leaving companies free to advertise either the drug's name (and nothing else), or the indications (and nothing else).

The FDA's warnings covered search ads for 48 different products -- one of the largest batches of letters ever sent by the FDA at one time. They caused a precipitous drop in the number of paid search exposures that include the name of the drug. The number plunged almost 60 percent between March and April, from almost 12 million to less than 3.5 million, and continued to sink to under two million by June.

"Unbranded link exposures" -- ads that lead to informational sites about a medical condition that don't directly promote a drug -- also saw about a 30 percent decline, though they numbered only 1.5 million to begin with. "Vanity link exposures" -- ads that look like they'll lead to an informational site but instead go to a drug's promotional site -- dropped from 3.5 million in March to 3.1 million in April, but popped back up in May. Vanity-link drug ads are the only exception to Google's general "truth in advertising" policy that requires advertisers to send clickthroughs only to the advertised site, and so far they haven't attracted the ire of the FDA.

Mangano said the FDA action has significantly shifted demand for the search terms formerly beloved of pharma advertisers. One immediate result: Some pharma companies that hadn't run afoul of FDA ad guidelines found themselves winning unprecedented numbers of keyword bids due to a sudden lack of competition. They ran through their online ad budgets with unanticipated speed, and also had to cut back. "It's like when you're playing tug of war and you let go of the rope," Mangano says. "You lose, but the other team falls in the mud."

Meanwhile, the market for those generic disease terms is more wide open than it's ever been, and health content sites like Everydayhealth.com have a shot at winning them, Mangano says. "Search terms are like currency, and the economy has shifted."

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