Google Ends Bidding by Rogue Pharmacies

Google will soon stop accepting ads from unlicensed online pharmacies and will restrict keyword bidding on the names of pharmaceutical drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, the search company said.

The new policy, which will not affect Google’s natural search results, will go into effect when the search company implements a third party solution to verify pharmacies that attempt to bid on keywords. The company declined to specify a date the new policy would become effective.

“We believe these changes will help both our users and advertisers by ensuring consumer choice and quality in online pharmacies,” said Google Spokesperson David Krane, in a statement.

Google’s policy change comes on the heels of a similar move by Overture, a wholly owned subsidiary of Yahoo . Overture, which also provides paid search results to MSN, stopped accepting advertisements from unlicensed online pharmacies in mid-November.

Overture spokesperson Jennifer Stephens said the company’s decision to drop the ads was reached independently and was not the result of external lobbying or legal pressures.

“We’ve recognized that the online environment has becomes increasingly complex in this area, and certain steps will help identify legitimate pharmacies,” Stephens said.

Both Google and Overture are implementing a third party solution that will let them identify the licensed providers of prescription drugs, a short list of sites that includes Drugstore.com and the Web sites of Walgreens and CVS. Overture said these companies, along with the manufacturers of drugs, will be the only entities permitted to bid on drug names as keywords.

Neither company opted to disclose the name of the provider they will use to sort legitimate pharmacies from illegal operators that sell drugs with only a brief phone consultation or none at all.

While restricting bidding on certain keywords is nothing new to search engines, the decisions by Google and Overture to disallow these businesses from buying advertising highlights the companies’ uncomfortable roles as moral arbiters to the public.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have recently investigated or shut down several domestic pharmacies. However, foreign pharmacies have stepped in to fill the gap, and federal agencies are now focusing their efforts on the Web sites, banks and shipping outlets that support rogue online pharmacies. The FDA has also launched a campaign to raise awareness about the risks of buying drugs from shady online pharmacies.

Jupiter Research, which shares a parent corporation with this site, predicts the market for online prescription drugs will skyrocket, growing from $3.2 billion in 2003 to $13.8 billion in 2007.

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