Search Marketing in Regulated Industries

Developing and promoting a site for a company in a highly regulated industry can be a challenge to a search marketer on many unforeseen levels. Here’s how to avoid common gotchas or even worse consequences.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 6-10, 2006, San Jose, California.

Involved in retail? Pharma? Gambling? Alcohol sales? Run a medical site? Offer legal advice? Chances are, you have to deal with regulations from the government, from search engines or from your own company about what you can or cannot say on your site and in your ads, or even who you may link to and vice versa.

The “Search and Regulated Industries” panel featured search marketing professionals sharing their experience with clients in different heavily regulated industries, explaining how search marketers can manage to stay within the rules yet not compromise their search marketing campaigns.

Understanding your client’s restrictions on certain search marketing activities is not just a business obligation, but a legal one as well.

“Familiarity with regulatory constraints means faster results,” says Heather Frahm, co-founder of Catalyst Online, an exclusive SEM provider to the pharma, biotech, and medical equipment industries. Inversely, not knowing what they are or how do effectively deal them will greatly slow an untrained search marketer down, and can create legal problems for both the client and yourself. For these reasons, its important to know what guidelines are universal and what are specific to both your industry and your client.

Standards and practices—both lawful and ethical—are imposed by the following groups:

  • Government regulatory bodies
  • Industry-funded organizations
  • Search engines
  • Your client

A reputable client in a heavily regulated industry should already have its internal/corporate guidelines in place, with a list of both proper procedures and restrictions on certain types of marketing practices. Your PPC campaigns and organic search may be scrutinized by both a company’s marketing team and an internal regulatory committee, who will specify revisions to be made to keywords and copy, all visible and non-visible site data, and even your submission content to link directories.

Search regulations in the drinks industry

“The drinks industry is especially restricted from using paid search listings,” explained Martin Murray, Chief Executive for Interactive Return, whose company handles the online account for major adult beverage brands including Guinness, Baileys and Johnnie Walker.

“With Google, you can’t opt for sponsored listings if you’re a drinks firm,” since Google restricts all alcohol advertisements for both beer and hard liquor (spirits). “So a lot more of the search marketing work we do is concentrated on the organic side, SEO.”

If a product is “global media,” then Murray also must deal with “code clearance.” This refers to different regulations for different countries, such as the legal drinking age. Along with legal rules are ascribed ethical marketing guidelines. For example, Murray explains that his industry-recommendations (i.e., non-enforceable) on promotional activity, as established by a collaboration of the major drink companies and industry-funded advocate organizations for responsible drinking, “should not have the alcoholic strength as a dominant theme, encourage immoderate consumption; incorporate images of people under 25 years of age; or suggest any association with anti-social behavior, illicit drugs, sexual success, social success or popularity, or enhanced mental or physical capabilities.”

Using the example of Smirnoff Vodka, ethnical marketing guidelines for alcoholic products may have a home page with age verification entry/login, a disclaimer encouraging “responsible drinking,” and a web page showing a collaboration with other drink companies, with links on industry-funded organizations for drinking responsibly and public awareness of alcohol abuse.

Along with that are responsible drinking messages throughout the web site content, plus a separate informational site for information on a product or brand, such as

Search regulations in the pharma industry

Heather Frahm, co-founder of Catalyst, with major brand name clients in the pharma industry including Pfizer and Novartis, explained the specific regulations tied to the pharma industry.

One of the most important guidelines for pharma is the U.S. Fair Balance Act. “What it tells a pharmaceutical marketer is the requirement to mention the name of the drug, the condition it treats, and all of the potential side effects,” says Frahm. “Obviously, you can’t fit all of the side effects in the little ad listing, so you’ll need a landing page to fit all of that fair balance information.”

It’s also important to know what marketing terms have restricted pharma advertising uses. “If a new drug comes out, and 6 months passes, you can no longer buy the word ‘new.’ Otherwise it would be considered misleading by FDA standards.”

Content challenges can be pervasive when optimizing for pharma companies. Frahm explains that the pharma industry is trying to produce content at a 6th-8th grade reading level. “So the client may want to rank for ‘schizophrenia,’ but they won’t want us to put it into their content,” she said.

Frahm’s content recommendations for this SEO obstacle include targeting misspellings and optimization for popular key phrases but incorrect circumstances. While an effective solution, this can sometimes pose an ethical clash of attracting an audience by initially misleading an audience.

Linking precautions for pharma must also be made, such as making sure that only US-based sites are linked to ads and information on US-approved drugs. All text links must be approved by the client’s teams, and some common marketing terms might not be approved for linking to. “Linking from ‘cure’ sites could especially be seen as false claims,” says Frahm.

Don’t count on being able to use company press releases to link to the product site, either. Frahm explains this is often company policy to avoid FDA scrutiny and potentially misleading the general public (such as believing that a drug has already been approved when it may still be in clinical trials). Frahm says that “you’re better off to leverage corporate assets, such as unbranded sites, PR campaign sites, and outside partners and organizations” for link opportunities and gaining link popularity.

Search marketing regulations in the retail industry

Liana Evans, SEM Manager for Commmerce360, whose clients include many large online retailers, pointed out that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates most kinds of merchandise, which also includes all of the merchandise for sale on retailer web sites and their advertisements.

“If you sell a silver plated watch, you have to say exactly that; you cannot say ‘silver watch,'” Evans said. “It has to be clearly defined, or FTC can come down on you and say you’re doing false advertisement.”

Evans warns online retailers that the FTC does impose fines for false advertisements, “and not just on the retailer, but on the web developer and marketer as well, should they have knowingly perpetuated the fraud,” or have been complicit to the fraudulent activity. Evans advises search marketers to take their own precautions. “If something reads funny, consult legal counsel.”

Some niches of retail are being very closely monitored. “The FTC has really been focusing on the diet and vitamin industry,” says Evans, since so many scams are prevalent in that market. To help educate consumers, the FTC has created a “red flags” web site, which Evans explains “its there to educate searchers on how to identify blatantly false advertising on diets, diet pills and nutritional supplements, and how to report them to the FTC.”

The future of industry guidelines for search marketing

Overall, government and corporate regulatory industries are still very new to understanding how the search marketing industry works and how to regulate for balancing access to information with consumer safety. Search marketers with clients in regulated fields agree that even non-binding recommendation lists can provide some starter guidance, but that much more needs to be implemented and standardized to give a clear understanding of what legal protections they are entitled to.

“It will definitely take some education, but I think [regulatory agencies” are open to listening,” says Frahm. “If they get the right people who understand search, I think they’ll incorporate policies that are fair to the consumer as well as the companies.”

Tips for search marketing with regulated industries

    • Know all of the guidelines and regulatory commissions your client is bound by, not just for your general industry but for your specific industry. If you don’t know them, have the client provide them for you.
    • Project and relationship management plays a key role, so work closely with client’s marketing and legal teams. Be prepared to deal with them, and educate them all the time.
    • Know industry terminologies and what special usage they may have on search marketing activities.
    • Marketing review and approval will follow your SEM work, which will then be followed by regulatory review approval, with revisions and re-approval of your campaigns sometimes required. Murray recommends to have your SEO person or team be a part of the site’s edit/review cycle. “Become partners with other teams, and have written checklists or guidelines for site team and team members.”
    • Understand which industry guidelines are recommended and which ones are mandatory (and enforceable).
    • Find out what other types of advertising your client is engaging in, and what messages they are making in them. Companies that run infomercials can draw the biggest scrutiny onto themselves from the FTC.
    • If something looks funny, question it. if you don’t get a satisfactory answer, discuss it with the department head and keep a record of your discussion.
    • Know your industry spam cop sites, and where to report fraud activity.
  • If your client doesn’t have these policies in place, have them implement them into corporate policy, corporate-wide.

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director of Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web site design, and usability firm.

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