For Your Own Good: Google in Cahoots with a Federal Agency


Look, Google is a private company and can do what it wants with its property, including things that might alienate its customers. Earlier this month, Google launched its new "Medication Search" feature. The new feature is a partnership with the National Institutes of Health. So now if you search for a particular drug by brand name, Google will display government drug information pages at the top showing what the drug is, its side effects, dose and administration directions, and any dietary instruction.

For example, I googled Prilosec and, yes indeed, the NIH PubMed page is at the top. Personally, I often turn to PubMed for such information, but pharmaceutical company information is also very user friendly. According to VentureBeat, Google stands to make more money from ads using this system:

You will also notice, when you search for the commercial names of drugs (as opposed to the generic), there is almost always a text advertisement in the right-hand sidebar for that drug and a yellow sponsored link box above. So, for Lipitor, you get a link to where you can buy the medication online. This appears to be a huge opportunity for the search giant to bolster its pharmaceutical advertising business.

The assumption is that better drug information will beget more drug-related queries, and therefore more opportunities to advertise medications to a wider audience. Doing some quick math based on how much of online advertising budgets is spent on search ads, Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land says that Google stands to make as much as $426 million off of pharmaceutical and health-related search advertising.

And indeed the page showing the results of my search for Prilosec is decorated with ad links to numerous anti-acid treatments. On the other hand, Dave Anderson who runs Pharma SEM suggests that pharmaceutical companies should be concerned about the new feature:

From a pharmaceutical SEO [search engine optimization] perspective, and more importantly possibly from a pharmaceutical brand strategy perspective, this is not an ideal scenario for the pharma brand. Let's analyze the results for a Lipitor search displayed in the image above. Prior to yesterday, Lipitor held the #1 spot on Google search results for "Lipitor". With the new medication search feature rolled out, we are looking at Lipitor now being bumped to the #2 spot. What's the big deal? Well, the commonly stated statistic is that 46% of all search clicks come from the #1 position, while the #2 result will capture around 12%. For a branded search, which in my experience drives a vast majority of search traffic to the branded site, this could be fairly damaging to pharma brand promotion via SEO.

While I feel uneasy about future similar government Google "partnerships," I note that googling topics such as cocaine, renewable energy, nuclear energy, and climate change also produces searches with government agencies at the top or close to the top. I was happy to see that when I googled "free speech," that the Federal Elections Commission and the Federal Communications Commission were nowhere to be seen on the first page.