IndustryDrowning in Red Tape: SEO and Pharma Regulations

Drowning in Red Tape: SEO and Pharma Regulations

In many industries, regulatory issues can add considerable complexity to an SEO implementation. The challenge is not to let that complexity get in the way of a campaign's success.

Every industry has its own set of rules to play by, some more rigid than others. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) agencies not only have to tailor search campaigns around client needs, but also must navigate the somewhat frustrating and often turbulent waters of client bureaucracy.

While a necessary evil, dealing with chains of command, compliance protocol, and legal review all could have the potential to scuttle a strong search strategy. Great content is often capsized by a maelstrom of content revisions and social media, reduced to a message in a bottle.

Often these regulatory measures are established for completely benevolent reasons. Clients need to protect their brand equity, and a misstep online can leave a company with reputation management issues (just ask Sports Authority about their 20% off coupon).

These precautions, although valid, can steer an SEO implementation off-course, if you let them. And an agency would be wise to map a safe route through corporate compliance issues.

The pharmaceutical business is among the biggest offenders, with more rules and regulations than just about any industry I know. The poetry here is that pharma was one of the first adapters of agency SEO, creating a positive yet nuanced relationship between the two. Because of this, an SEO must make specific, tactical considerations when optimizing a pharmaceutical brand site.

Technically Speaking

Most technical considerations are not really review problems, regardless of industry. Good clean code is not scrutinized on a regulatory level, and Flash is not a friend of SEOs in any industry.

Where pharma regulations will take issue is the implementation of technical recommendations. Oftentimes the size of the client’s company will create a difficult path to navigate before SEO changes can be made. There may be separate client teams engaged in web development, a backlog of other brand sites to code first, a rigid site redesign timeframe, or a host of other issues.

Patience and persistence are key here, and it never hurts to remind a client of the need to make things happen. When faced with technical implementation roadblocks, prioritize your recommendations, and present the most effective, yet actionable strategies first.

Content Can Be Lethal

While the axiom states “content is king,” more often content is trouble in the pharmaceutical space. All information that goes on a pharma Web site must go through legal, regulatory and medical review to ensure that it is accurate, fair and balanced. This applies not only to on-site copy but also title tags, keywords and META descriptions. Rounds of revision and the waiting periods between client deliverables can place a site in limbo if you’re not careful.

Let’s add another layer of confusion. The public may perform keyword searches for terms that the client or brand is not allowed to use on the website. This creates a major disconnect, especially when our goal is to optimize a client’s site for high volume search terms.

There is also the issue of fair balance on Web pages. This is the language that outlines all of the warnings and potential side effects that could be associated with the drug. It’s not exactly marketing-friendly, and it’s definitely not the first thing you want a user to see when searching. Make sure you have good META descriptions in place, so that the engines are not choosing the first piece of available copy for a search result description.

Content has no easy solution in the online pharmaceutical space. The best plan is early preparation. Ask the client for any compliance documents and brand style guides available in order to reduce the rounds of revision. When unable to use certain search terms, consider link building alternatives, or at least propose reputation management services for terms like “[drug name” side effects” and “potential dangers of [drug name”.”

Covering your bases on all high-volume search terms, regardless of whether they can appear on-site, often marks the difference between a (relatively) optimized site and an optimized campaign – relevancy, of course, remaining the key unifier.

Linking it all Together

Building links to a Web site is vital to any SEO program. This holds true for the pharmaceutical industry. But the regulations of the pharma industry make common Linkbuilding tactics more difficult. For example, one of the most useful tools an SEO can use for link development is an e-mail alias from the client’s company. This enables the agency to send link requests on the client’s behalf, and provides a sense of authenticity to potential linking sites.

However, in all of my experience with the pharmaceutical industry, I’m hard-pressed to find an example in which a pharma client has ever provided an e-mail alias. Requests typically get bogged down by compliance issues and fears of tarnished brand image.

This creates a challenge when requesting links. If you are unable to secure a client e-mail alias, consider your other options. You can designate someone within the client organization to handle link contacts and provide him/her with a list of link targets. Top tier links from the client’s partners may be secured through one of their own contacts, commonly a public relations manager, as well.

The other option is pursuing links on the agency side without the alias. While not as easy, link building can still be successful with a strong message and proper disclosure.

Web Two Point Oh No!

Face it. When it comes to social media stuff, pharmaceutical companies don’t exactly have a leg up. Content is often too rich with medical jargon to go viral, and most prescription brands aren’t very keen on user reviews. And that’s all before we consider legal review.

Any Web 2.0 strategy for a pharma client has to take into consideration both the hurdles of creating user content and the need for user involvement. This is why many prescription drugs have unbranded sites. They represent chances to share information with patient and physician audiences and step away from some branded site restraints. Unbranded informational sites can be soft targets for effective Web 2.0 ideas.

Most of your social media efforts will either be a battle, or will have to occur under the radar. Social tagging, video submissions, and universal search opportunities may be a hard client sell. Again, that pesky brand image must be respected. Meet your client with a strong social media strategy, but be sure to itemize it in a way that’s compliance-palatable.

Fight for Good SEO

Sometimes you have to be resilient in order to do what’s best for a client. If a client cannot implement your recommendations, be sure to have acceptable backups. Take care of the easy stuff first, and work with the client to realize effective strategies that may have to contend with regulatory issues.

Do your homework. Find out about client compliance issues beforehand, and structure the SEO campaign accordingly. Who knows? Strategies that seem unattainable now might be more feasible after a successful first client engagement.

Although the pharmaceutical field is one of the more heavily regulated industries in terms of promotional practices, in an odd way this adds to the fun. Part of the thrill of SEO is the challenge, and working within such strict client parameters certainly adds to that. The success is all the more enjoyable when every level of the campaign meets the client’s needs in such a complete and practical manner.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies New York, March 17-20, 2008, and for SEM training classes on March 21.


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