Klick Health

Goodbye vanity URLs

SEM Channel Lead

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On April 1st, 2008 Google policy was updated and required that all ads display URLs must match its destination URL. However, in the pharmaceutical world the FDA regulates that any ad without fair balance cannot mention both indication and brand name. Paid search ads cannot fit fair balance into the copy because of limited character space. That means advertisers cannot have fair balance and thus cannot use their brand.com as the display URL for any unbranded ad copy that mentions the indication or condition.

Google acknowledged the FDA’s requirements and the complications pharmaceutical advertisers have and responded by granting exceptions to their policy for this industry.

Last week Google announced that in January 2016 vanity URLs will no longer be permitted on pharmaceutical ads and the policy they introduced in 2008 is going to be applied across all industries without any exceptions.



Why the Change?

Originally when Google introduced the policy in 2008 it was because they believed vanity URLs have the potential to be considered deceptive and may not accurately depict to the user where they are going to be driven. Fair enough, they are absolutely right in that assessment. The display URL on ads should accurately represent the website the ad will actually take the user to. It’s more transparent and provides a better user experience.

Google should also be commended for making changes like this at a cost to their own revenue, because it is the right thing to do. In the long term, this will improve industry/patient relationships.

What Now?

Does this mean pharma advertisers can’t run unbranded ad copies anymore? Google is fully aware of the constraints with advertising in the pharmaceutical industry and they have every intention of allowing other solutions that would allow advertisers to continue serving unbranded ad copies but without using vanity URLs.

In January, Google will also be introducing 3 new alternative options:

  1. .com
  2. Company Name
  3. Static text: “Prescription Treatment Website” or “Prescription Device Website”

For demonstrative purposes let’s pretend we are promoting the drug Fixmyow (fixmyow.com) which is indicated for the treatment of stubbed toes manufactured by Ott Pharmaceuticals (ottpharma.com)



Instead of using brand.com as the display URL, Google would permit using the manufacturers domain instead. While this is technically still not the accurate representation of the website that the policy is meant to enforce, it’s a lot closer than what is currently being done. There’s still a lot of concern over this one though. By mentioning the manufacturer and the indication in the same ad, we understand that some review boards believe we are implying the brand in instances where that manufacturer only has one treatment for that indication.



Similar to the above approach, the ad would display the manufacturers name instead of its domain. This approach raises the same concerns about linking the company to an indication and whether or not that implies a brand.



This is the Klick preferred approach. It’s not deceptive to users, it doesn’t imply the brand in anyway and it’s fair to assume an easier sell to regulatory boards since it’s the most conservative of the 3 options. There are some instances where a drug may be the only treatment indicated for a condition in which case this option may also be a concern because by stating that it’s a treatment website it may in turn imply the brand. Those instances are not the norm however, so this approach would be suitable for most advertisers and alternative solutions may be required for those extenuating circumstances.

Expected Impact

There’s no way to predict what this will mean with regards to how campaigns will perform after these changes. I’m going to speculate here with my professional opinion about what I predict we could see happen.

Click-Through-Rates (CTR) Decline

We’ve already established that the way things are now may be perceived as deceptive. Mostly in the sense that the vanity URLs advertisers frequently choose to use make the ads appear like they’re informational sites similar to the likes of a Wikipedia, WebMD or MayoClinic. The reality is that in an unbranded environment where users are searching for information about a condition there’s more incentive for those users to click on an ad that appears to be an information website over an ad that is promoting a product website. It’s reasonable to assume that a user will believe they can get more relevant and meaningful information about their condition from a source positioned as a resource more than they would from a source perceived as promotional material. With more transparency about what the website is, users may very well be less inclined to click on those ads.

Lower CTRs may also in turn impact quality scores which in turn may impact the price-per-click.

Rate of Quality Users Increase

If users now have a better expectation of where they are going and albeit fewer of them click on the ads, what does that say about those who DO click on them? They’re more likely clicking on the ads not because they were misled but instead because they knew what they were getting and still chose to click because it is relevant and/or of interest to them. Whatever you define your “quality” as – be it bounce rates, conversions, time on site, etc – it is our belief that a user who willingly chooses to go to the website knowing full well that it’s for a product is going to be far more likely to engage with that site than the average user who lands there misinformed.

Next Steps

If you are a Klick client and your SEM ads will be impacted by this change, expect to hear from your representative (if you haven’t already) regarding a more detailed breakdown of what this means for your campaign. The Klick SEM team will be working to introduce alternative ad copy options for your brand to roll out before the New Year.

More About the Author

Mike Ott

Mike Ott buys traffic depending on how engaged the user is and what the clients objectives are. For him, it’s all about the end result: when he can produce a profitable campaign for a client. He's been doing SEM for over a decade now and loves that the industry is constantly changing and coming out with new innovations.

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