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Paid Search in Healthcare and Pharma: Balancing Efficiency with Compliance


Paid search campaigns are the go-to strategy for advertisers looking for information seekers with high intent. As one of the most widely used advertising platforms globally, Google Ads offers immense opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to reach their target audiences effectively.

However, to ensure fair competition, user trust, and compliance with Google’s stringent advertising policies, advertisers must familiarize themselves with and abide by the platform’s guidelines. From transparent ad content to adherence to legal regulations, paid search compliance for Google Ads not only fosters a positive user experience but also helps businesses build a trustworthy and sustainable online reputation in today’s dynamic digital landscape.

That’s why we’ve created this guide to help industry insiders get on the right track. Our goal is to provide the right tools for navigating these challenges to develop strong paid search campaigns that resonate with users. 

What is Pharmaceutical Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising?

Pharmaceutical Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising leverages the inquiries made by patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs) seeking health-related information online. When individuals search for details about an ailment, a symptom, or a specific medication, these searches offer pharmaceutical brands an opportunity to educate consumers on disease awareness, patient services, community organizations related to the disease, and potential treatments. 

For instance, consider a pharmaceutical firm that manufactures a medication for managing diabetes. In that scenario, they might focus on keywords such as “diabetes medication” or “diabetes management options” for their PPC bids. Google uses these bids along with various other factors to decide which advertisements to show its users. 

Creating a Pharma-Perfect Audience Persona Through Keyword Research

Once conversion tracking is accounted for, it’s time to zoom in on the target audience. Who is the perfect customer, and how can they be helped by the products or resources offered? 

First, pharmaceutical marketers should analyze search volume and trends surrounding specific drugs, medical conditions, and treatment options to identify common patterns and interests. Second, examine user intent behind search queries to understand what information or solutions the audience seeks. 

Ultimately, this data-driven approach leveraging keyword research to create a pharmaceutical audience persona allows companies to build stronger connections with customers and provide them with the medical solutions they truly require. 

Keyword Targeting: The Pharma Approach

Unlike other sectors, keyword targeting for pharmaceutical companies is like traversing a minefield. You must tread carefully to avoid breaking compliance while making your products appealing to users. Here are some golden rules to remember: 

Ensure there is enough search volume to support keyword targeting.
Utilize Google’s Keyword Planner to check search volume for keyword targeting. If there is no search volume, your keywords won’t serve and can affect overall account performance. Only target keywords that have search volume.

Make sure keywords match on-site content.
Ensuring that keywords match on-site content is a crucial aspect of effective paid search marketing. It is essential to strategically incorporate relevant keywords and phrases that align with the website’s main theme and target audience’s search intent. Not doing so leads to poor user experience and higher ad costs.

Pharma Compliance for Google Ads

Although advertising medical products is more complex than promoting everyday consumer goods, once the basics are mastered, it is mostly a matter of following regulations. 

Here is the basic rundown of what’s different for pharmaceuticals over regular products. 

  • General Context: Unlike standard search marketing, advertising pharmaceutical products on Google has specific regulatory requirements. This makes it imperative for advertisers to be well-informed and compliant. Infractions not only have repercussions on Google but can also lead to penalties from the FDA.  
  • State and Country-Specific Laws: Beyond Google’s guidelines, pharmaceutical companies must also stay abreast of country or state-specific laws governing medical advertising. For instance, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) plays a pivotal role in regulating pharmaceutical advertising in the United States. 
  • Certification: Before pharmaceutical companies can advertise on Google Ads, they must first obtain healthcare certification. This ensures they meet specific criteria set by Google and have the requisite
  • Advertising Scope 
    • Prescription Drugs: These can only be advertised in three countries: the United States, New Zealand, and Canada. 
    • Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs: Google allows OTC drug advertising in over 24 countries, including but not limited to nations like the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, and South Korea.
    • Bulk Drug Manufacturers: Companies supplying medical professionals with bulk quantities of drugs or antibody/peptide compounds can advertise solely in Canada and the United States.
  • Online Pharmacies: The promotion of online pharmacies is permitted but limited to specific countries. Before advertising, these pharmacies need certification from Google, ensuring they’re registered with the necessary pharmaceutical authorities in their target regions.
  • Restricted Substances: Google maintains a list of prohibited drugs and supplements that cannot be advertised. Unauthorized promotion of such products could lead to severe consequences, including account suspension.
  • Personalized Advertising Restrictions:: Due to the sensitive nature of healthcare, Google prohibits pharmaceutical advertisers from using personalized advertising methods that tap into users’ personal hardships, beliefs, or identities. This means marketers can’t utilize demographic targeting or remarketing tools for these products.

Crafting Pharma-Compliant Ads

Here are three strategic tips for pharma ad success, while ensuring regulatory alignment: 

Ensure that there is Fair Balance: All side effects must be mentioned when discussing the brand and conditions and/or symptoms Google’s character limits don’t allow for this, so the brand and condition cannot be mentioned in the same ad. To avoid inadvertent violations, segment branded and non-branded ads into distinct campaigns, with extensions applied at the campaign or ad group level. This approach enhances precision and targeting effectiveness. 

Maximize ad space and character limits for Black Box Drugs: For this unique category, include a request to “read PI & boxed warning,” albeit within character constraints. Optimize every inch of space using ad extensions, site links, callouts, and paths. Non-branded ads are a boon here, as they offer descriptive potential without the warning request, driving disease-related queries effectively. Also, note that ad extensions don’t always show. 

Strategically structure campaigns for healthcare professionals (HCP) and direct-to-patient (DTP) audiences: Maintain separate brand and non-brand campaigns, safeguarding against brand name and indication coexistence. Further customize HCP and DTP campaigns, optimizing messaging for tailored impact. 

Consequences of Non-compliance

Google regularly disciplines advertisers to ensure they stay consistent with these guidelines. Breaches can lead to various levels of punitive measures, including: 

  • Ad disapproval 
  • FDA Letter  
  • Compliance reviews 
  • Disabling of remarketing lists 
  • In severe cases, account suspension 

Crafting the Perfect Landing Page for Your Pharma Ads

Paying to direct traffic to an inadequate landing page is akin to stumbling at the finish line, leaving behind a less-than-ideal initial impression.  

When crafting the perfect landing page for your pharma ads, here are some key points to keep in mind: 

  • Collaboration is Key: Partner closely with the client or agency. The clearer they are on regulatory and search engine rules, the smoother the process will be. Engage with their development and content teams, ensuring alignment across all stakeholders. 
  • There Are No Shortcuts: Resist the temptation to use overlays to cover non-compliant content. Search engines can detect these tricks, which can lead to ad disapprovals.  
  • Understanding Client Protocols: Many companies have internal compliance protocols beyond standard regulations. Incorporate sufficient time for these additional project timeline checks. 
  • Aesthetics Matter: Design the landing page to be visually appealing and user-friendly to retain visitor engagement.  
  • Prioritize Speed: Ensure the website loads rapidly, especially on mobile devices, to enhance user experience. 
  • Align Keywords and Content: The keyword targeted in the PPC ad should be prominently featured on the landing page, along with any products or offers promoted in the ad. 
  • Craft Clear Copy: Make sure the copy on the landing page is clearly written, informative, and effectively expands on the ad message. 

Conversion Tracking For Healthcare Landing Pages

In the highly regulated and competitive landscape of the pharmaceutical industry, understanding the impact of each advertising channel is crucial in measuring and optimizing the effectiveness of marketing efforts. That is why conversion tracking is of utmost importance.

Conversion tracking allows pharmaceutical companies to monitor and analyze the actions taken by users after clicking on their ads, such as downloading prescription information, signing up for a newsletter, or viewing video content. 

By accurately attributing conversions to specific keywords or ads, marketers can identify the most successful strategies, allocate budgets accordingly, and maximize the return on investment (ROI). Furthermore, conversion tracking provides valuable insights into consumer behavior, enabling marketers to fine-tune their campaigns, enhance user experience, and ultimately lead to more informed and impactful decisions in promoting vital healthcare products and services. 

Potential on-site actions for conversion tracking include:  

  • Prescription information or any other resource downloads 
  • Webinar and video views 
  • Requests for more information or newsletter sign-ups 

Just because a user doesn’t complete a measured on-site action doesn’t mean they’re not a valuable user. Keyword refinement and search query optimization will help identify what terms to keep or discard.

Choosing the Right Ad Formats for Your Pharma Campaign

While certain terms might be off-limits in pharma campaigns, there’s still plenty of room for creativity. Here are a few suggestions: 

  • Responsive Search Ads: Create dynamic ads that automatically adapt to show the most relevant combination of headlines and descriptions to potential customers, optimizing for better performance. 
  • Ad Assets (formerly Extensions): Boost your ad performance by enhancing your messages with ad extensions. They increase your ad’s size and add helpful information that your prospective clients want to see. Running an online pharmacy with a physical store as well? Make sure to utilize call and location extensions to facilitate conversions. 

At the end of the day, the goal is to deliver engaging, compelling messages that underscore the benefits of the brand’s offerings.  

Choosing the Right Ad Network

Once the right ad is crafted and the landing page is optimized, the next step is choosing the right network. Google Ads isn’t a one-size-fits-all platform. It offers various networks, each with unique ad formats and reach potential.  

Here is an overview of available networks: 

  • Google Search Network: The first thing that pops into most marketers’ minds when talking about Google Ads is Google Search Network. Search ads allow marketers to place their brand on Google’s search result pages using specific keywords. They’re perfect whether one is looking to educate potential patients or sell medicines directly. 
  • Search Partners: The Google Search Partner network is an extension of Google Ads, allowing advertisers to display their ads on websites and search engines that partner with Google. This network helps advertisers reach a broader audience beyond the Google search engine, increasing online visibility and potential customer base. 
  • Microsoft Ads: Microsoft Ads offers advertisers a valuable platform to extend their reach and diversify their audience to include users on Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, and partner sites. Additionally, Microsoft Ads provides robust targeting options, insightful analytics, and the ability to leverage LinkedIn targeting.

So, what’s the best strategy? The best approach is often a blend of these networks, each serving a different purpose in the marketing funnel.

Navigating Google Ads Pharmaceutical Advertising Authorization

As mentioned previously, before pharmaceutical PPC ads can be served on the Google Ads platform, the company needs to be certified. This is Google’s way of ensuring that the company and products being advertised are legitimate and lawful.

The Application Journey For Agencies

Agencies wishing to advertise on behalf of pharmaceutical companies must obtain approval with Google’s Pharmaceutical Manufacturer Authorization Letter

There may be cases where additional information is requested, such as details of the partnership with the agency, which will need to be submitted via a Pharmaceutical Manufacturer Authorization Letter. 

Before diving into the application process, review the country and drug restrictions mentioned earlier in this guide. This can help circumvent any hiccups that might prevent certification.

Google’s online application form will ask for basic information, including:

  • The type of pharmaceutical organization
  • The country where the company is licensed
  • Contact name, address, email, and phone number 
  • Website URL 

Access the application form here

Decoding Disapproval

Once the application is submitted, Google will review the information and issue an approval or disapproval. Even with certification, occasional disapproval is still a possibility if the specific campaign does not comply with their standards or regulations. When an ad or campaign gets flagged, Google sends out a feedback letter explaining their reasoning. 

Embracing the Challenge

Paid search in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors might seem a Herculean task, but by taking the attitude that regulations are guidelines that facilitate rather than obstacles that impede, our agency can further your marketing objectives using our proven process.

So, why wait? Let us help you create an informed and compliant paid search strategy to position your brand’s campaign for maximum performance