Search Marketing and the Pharmaceutical Industry

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Health care and pharmaceuticals is one of those industries that Google pays particular close attention to. It is one of the most highly regulated industries online (outside of the dark web), and Google alone have teams who’s primary role is to ensure that you aren’t bombarded with ads for Viagra or spammy sites trying to sell you weight loss or hair loss tablets. It’s this teams job to make sure that what people see when the search in Google is the most credible, authoritative and legitimate option available online.

In order to achieve this, Google have strict – albeit sometimes difficult to comprehend, let alone follow – guidelines around health product and pharmaceutical websites and how they are advertised on the Google search platform.

“Ironically, in most cases Viagra is one of those keywords that doesn’t ‘stay up’ for very long in search results when you add it to an Adwords campaign”

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a few businesses within the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, and it’s by far one of the more challenging industries to help successfully navigate the sometimes treacherous search marketing waters.

So, in order to make it a little easier for others out there, I figured I’d share a few tips and insights I’ve learnt over this time.

Some of the Issues

Pharmacy Guild Certification

A Pharmacy Guild Certification is the official ‘tick of approval’ from the governing body of the medical and pharmaceutical industry – at least here in Australia anyways. Google requires your business to have a pharmacy guild certificate in order to promote prescription and many medicinal products via their products.

Without providing this certification, in Google’s eyes, you are not seen as an official chemist or pharmacy, and therefore not entitled to bid or be displayed for a significant amount of terms, phrases and products.

A guild certificate can only be used for your site when the website is linked to a physical bricks and mortar store.

Google and Regulated Terms & Products

Google caters their guidelines around specifications and regulations of the country the users are searching within. This ensures that products that governments and industry bodies have determined as not for public consumption (without a prescription) are not only regulated in bricks and mortar stores but also online.

Google has provided a list of the products and terms within the pharma industry that are forbidden within their network.

You can check out the full list of Google’s black listed product’s here:

A list of products unapproved for businesses without a Pharmacy Guild certification can be found here:

Important note: Although not blacklisted, terms such as pharmacy and chemist also play havoc with the filters.

Pharmacy-like Businesses/Over the Counter Chemists

These are businesses that although commonly known as pharmacies or chemists, sometimes don’t have a pharmacist onsite. They sell over the counter medicines like Nurofen, Band-Aids, perfumes etc, but not prescriptions or specialty medicines.

Although these types of businesses might not be selling prescription or blacklisted products, they can often run into issues within Google search due to the close association or recognising their business as a chemist or pharmacy.


Benzac is an Acne treatment brand. Their products are readily available over the counter and even in supermarkets, but unfortunately for anyone trying to sell these products online it’s also on the Google black list for advertising on search.


The worst part about a product like this is that in Google’s eyes, it’s not just the pages that display this brand that ends up getting nuked by the Google filters, it’s also the pages that are linked to it as well – which is pretty much every page on your site.

“Even some over-the-counter brands and products can trigger Google’s sometimes over-zealous Adwords filter”

Benzac is just one example of this, but if Google identifies a single suspect item on the site it can result in the entire site, ad group or campaign getting red-flagged for a violation of guidelines.


A Few Solutions & Tips

Ensuring you get as few disapprovals and red flags against your account is pretty important; not only from a time required resolving the issues perspective, but if your account is flagged too many times it can affect your overall account reputation and can end up resulting in an account suspension. Although exactly what triggers and dictates the threshold of this is one of the secret sauce elements of Google Adwords algorithm. Play it safe and keep your account as above board and out of trouble as possible. The last thing you want is to get black listed or dropped entirely.

Some other tips are:

Get a Pharmacy Guild Certification and Submit to Google

As mentioned above, this is not as simple as filling in a form and paying a fee. This is a highly regulated industry with A LOT of red tape. But, if your business does meet the guidelines, then this will solve pretty much all of your issues.
Application and guidelines can be found here (Australian guild) –

Follow Google’s Guidelines

Be sure to run a search across your site and product list for the products and terms that Google frowns upon (available here:

Identifying these issues on your site as early as possible will at least give you time to figure out if removing them from the site – or perhaps putting them behind a password – is a viable option, because without a Guild certification, this will definitely give you issues with your search.

Avoid Pharmaceutical Terms in your Campaign Elements – including ad copy, keyword targeting and onsite copy (if possible). The Adwords side of this is relatively easy, but where it can get tricky is when the words like Chemist and Pharmacy is part of your brand name – yet you don’t have Guild approval via Google. Having these terms in elements like your title tag or links on your page that point to content about prescriptions can sometimes raise the flag on Google’s end.

This also applies for organic search too. Although not as black and white as Adwords/Paid media filters, there are still pharma flags that are raised in organic too – as with anything organic, determining exactly what these flags are is the tricky part…

“Without a Pharmacy Guild certification, even using terms like ‘Chemist’ and ‘Pharmacy’ in your title tags can affect not only your SEM, but also your organic results”

Establish a Google Relationship

Without a guild certificate, you will definitely be contacting Google. A lot!

This can often be difficult – at least to get good support.

Google’s ad network spend threshold to get an Account Manager is around $70k per month on media spend the ad network (this is per client too, not entire MCC), which varies slightly depending on industry; or the black box Google sales definition of ‘if your company/offering is likely to grow significantly over the next 12 months, then you are eligible for a Google account manager’.

If that kind of spend is not in your ballpark, then prepare to be shipped off to their Indian call-center or online help service. If this happens, ensure that you at least try to establish one point of contact. This can be tricky as each time you do contact them it’s likely you’ll be speaking to someone new; each time the Googler will have different levels of expertise, knowledge or permission to make certain changes for your account.

Google call center help is very hit and miss. If you find someone that is able to help you, try your hardest to make them your go-to Google contact. It will save you a lot of time and trouble.

Ask Google for Clarification

Find out why you campaigns and keywords were disapproved.

Correct the issue if possible, but if you’re the victim of Google’s often over-zealous pharma filters, then have the Google rep place a note on your account about the issue. It won’t help you avoid the filters, but it does make the resolution process easier the next time.

Make Your Product Feeds Tight!

If you are using Google Shopping, make sure your product feed is in tip-top shape. All SKUs, titles fit guidelines etc. One disapproval can often result in your entire feed getting disapproved.

Product Feed ISsues

And Some Quirks…

Leave Plenty of Time to get Your Campaigns Live

Get three days minimum prior to a campaign launch to cater for dealing with Google. Yeah, they are one of the most progressive and technologically advanced businesses in the world, but their customer service in these instances is pretty damn average. If you want your campaign up immediately then you’re in trouble. As touched on earlier, dealing with a Google call-center is a pretty average experience. You are almost certain to get a different rep each time, each of which is pretty much guaranteed to deal with your situation differently. Some will read you account alert and get your campaign up and running straight away. Others… well… they like to run the issue past their manager, who then like to run it by someone else and before you know it, a week has passed and your campaign period is long gone.

Give yourself plenty of time. Yep, it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s completely necessary.

Avoid Campaign and Ad Reviews When Possible

There are many areas of this issue that are tricky to lock down – especially without a Guild Certificate – but make sure you don’t violate any trademark or branding guidelines too. Large pharmacy sites can sometimes have 20k+ products online, often when one item gets flagged as having an issue, the entire campaign, product feed or account can come under review.

If you’re rolling the dice against pharma terms, these reviews can cause quite a few flags to pop up, which can sometimes result in large chunks of your campaign being reviewed and disapproved, so make sure you’re only updating when completely necessary and giving yourself plenty of time to wait for approval.

No doubt this is a tricky one, as you always want to be updating and improving the campaigns, so make sure your adgroups and campaigns a succinct and in good shape. Categorise them and build out new campaign groups so you’re sending fewer campaigns back to Google for approval.

Client and Stakeholder Perception

This is a big one, yet is often overlooked. At Next Digital (where I play with search engines), we insist that our clients have full transparency into their accounts, which means the accounts are linked to their email address as well as ours (even if it’s just read only).
This means that when the account gets a notification from Google, good or bad, so does the client – in this case in the form of a red flagged or disapproved ad campaign.

Waking up to an email inbox full of disapproved ad notifications is not a very encouraging experience, especially if the client doesn’t know why this is occurring.


Pharmaceuticals is one of the most volatile and unpredictable industries to deal with when it comes to search marketing, be sure that your stakeholders and clients are aware of the quirks and speed bumps that may be encountered with the account. Being upfront early will save you time and the hopefully reduce the amount of

Specific information about Google’s health product, supplements and pharmaceuticals policy is available here:

Yep, it’s a tricky industry sometimes, but you’re not the only one going through it. Lock down your processes. Tick all the boxes Google requires and keep on plugging away.
And if that doesn’t work, perhaps logging onto the pharmacy site and ordering yourself some of those calming, anti-depressant pills they probably sell might. Just don’t bother Googling them first though…


Who the hell is Daylan Pearce?

Daylan is a digital strategist for branding agency Principals. Looking after digital and customer experience projects, Daylan has been featured in The New York Times,, B&T, ProBlogger and more. He once ate 13 McDonald's cheeseburgers in under 5 minutes, but strongly advises against anyone else ever trying that. He also feels slightly odd when writing about himself in the third person for blog biography summaries.