Google, Overture Limit Pharmacy Ads — But Not In Free Listings

In just over a month, both major paid search providers Overture and Google have reacted to pressure to drop ads for unlicensed online pharmacies in the United States. But while the ads will be gone, the access to sites selling prescription medicines without proper approval will remain virtually unchanged.

I first saw the issue raised in a Wall Street Journal article at the end of October. also offered a good article, explaining how some online pharmacies wanted search advertising providers to crack down on sites they say let people purchase drugs without a prescription. The push was for only distributors certified by an industry organization to be allowed to advertise — currently, this includes 14 online pharmacies.

The US Federal Trade Commission also suggested in that article that search engines might find themselves liable if someone illegally purchases drugs from a company they let advertise. That suggests search engines might also find themselves liable for a range of other products that might be sold illegally, underscoring how complicated search marketing is getting, as it matures.

In early November, Overture gave in to the demands. Then yesterday, Google said it would do the same. A Washington Post article about the Google decision includes a poignant tale of a father whose son bought drugs from an unlicensed pharmacy and was later hospitalized.

He’s pleased that the ad changes will “save lives.” However, he — and anyone else concerned — had better watch their children closely. While the ads will go, listings for these companies will remain.

Try a search at Google for vicodin without prescription, and this is easily illustrated. There are plenty of sites in Google’s unpaid results pitching the ability to buy without a prescription. Nor is Google unusual — the same is true over at Yahoo, which has agreed to the ad ban. The ads are gone, but unpaid listings for these type of businesses remain.

To really stop access would require filtering of the unpaid results, and as I told a USA Today reporter doing a follow-up article on the issue, filtering out all of these sites from unpaid listings is fraught with problems.

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