Triple your customers using Healthcare & Pharma SEO – is that even allowed?

What is SEO?

SEO (“search engine optimization”) is all about increasing the online visibility of websites. The goal is to ensure that sites appear amongst the top results on search engines (nowadays almost exclusively Google), meaning they “rank” as highly as possible. This gets you more attention, more visitors, more brand exposure, and more customers. SEO professionals do this by optimizing websites in such a way as to be considered relevant by search engines. This includes changes in text, design, and important keywords; also, the website itself should offer content that is appealing to the intended target audience.


Pharmaceuticals & doctors under surgery lighting

Doctors, clinics, Pharma giants, and other healthcare providers, do not always know how to present themselves online in the right light. Yet there are enough options available.

Why SEO for Pharma / Healthcare? 

What does it mean nowadays to use the Internet? Mostly it means running searches on Google. This way, users can research just about anything, from everyday products to conspiracy theories, and yes, illnesses and their corresponding treatment options. And they do so on a grand scale: “herniated disc” is being googled 70,000 times each month in Germany, “meningitis” 33,000 times, and even technical terms such as “dysphagia” 12,000 times each month. If, as a provider, you have not managed to rank highly enough on Google, meaning you don’t feature within the first page of search results, then you will be virtually invisible on the Internet. A higher search result ranking means for you: better visibility for your product, your brand, and your company. Studies show that, among other things, providers which appear on top of Google search results, end up in the customer’s “relevant set” more often; this is the set of brands which the customer considers to be relevant for his purchase decision, and from which they will eventually select a brand. In fact, that way it can become more probable that the responsible patient will, upon finding a healthcare provider featuring comprehensive information on a particular disease process, later remember this, and ask his physician about solutions or treatment options on offer by that provider. To put it succinctly, if a healthcare or Pharma company wishes to run effective online advertisement, then, in the vast majority of cases, successful SEO will need to be an integral part of that.

Isn’t SEO prohibited for Pharma companies? 

We know that the Pharma industry, as well as some other healthcare providers, need to be much more careful when it comes to advertisement and online advertisement than other industries and vendors do, since there are a lot more statutory regulations in place for them. In Germany, advertisement of medicines is highly restricted by the German “Heilmittelwerbegesetz” (HWG). In the US, your advertising needs to be in line with FDA regulations. In the following, we will focus on the German situation, although we have worked in the US market as well.

In Germany, one generally has to distinguish between advertisement which is restricted to professional circles on the one hand, and public advertisement on the other hand. In principle, prescription-only medicine may only be advertised within professional circles (e.g. among doctors).

But in spite of these restrictions, Pharma companies are still left with a number of options for online marketing. We show you which ones – and what you need to pay attention to. Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for professional legal advice. As an agency, all we can do is point you in the right direction – what is potentially doable in your specific case, needs to be discussed within the setting of a personal 1-to-1 meeting or phone call.

Despite some limits: Many options for Pharma SEO

Even in the face of restrictions imposed by the German HWG, it is still possible to tackle advertisement campaigns pertaining to prescription-only medicines:

For example, the online publication of information guides – including audio-visual elements – on particular diseases and their respective treatment options is not prohibited. These guides can be written in such a way as to advise on treatments using particular medicines or therapy methods. By the way: surgery techniques do not fall under the HGW.

The guides can be published either by Pharma organisations themselves, or by third parties such as agencies or publishers. If the medicines or therapy methods to be advertised are mentioned within third party publications, then these can also be used as part of targeted marketing strategies. Imagine you are partnered up with an influential provider, who runs a disease information portal on your behalf, and who is ranked highly by Google and hence attracts thousands of potential customers each month. What kind of possibilities would that create for you?

Incidentally, surveys, evaluations and scientific articles are also allowed to be advertised. In many instances, these can make a strong case for the use of a particular drug.

Moreover, package inserts are not covered by the advertising regulations, and can be made available online, so long as they are offered in the form of so-called “pull services”. This means the user needs to actively perform some step (e.g. click on a specific menu item), in order to retrieve this information.

Google search results for surgical tools. Featuring Google Adwords ad.

Google search results for surgical tools. Featuring Google Adwords ad.

Non-prescription medicine may also be advertised online, e.g. some antihistaminics, headache or flu remedies. The same goes for food supplements. Likewise, medical devices such as e.g. surgical tools, can be advertised online – even via Google Adwords.

And finally, instead of just individual medicines or therapy methods, you can advertise your company as an organisation, thereby strengthening your brand, and hence gaining a foothold among potential patients by going above and beyond mere branding impact.

What you should take care of 

Some provisions stipulated by the German HWG regulation should be taken into account for each and every online advertisement. So far as medicine is concerned, it must be made clear at all times which provider belongs to which medicine. The owner or company behind a web presence must likewise be made readily identifiable. The distinction between advertisement within professional circles and to the general public must also be adhered to on the Internet – these two target groups must have dedicated, strictly separated areas within a website. Usually, it is even necessary to maintain a “restricted access” area for professional circles.

Pharma researcher trying out online marketing at a laptop

Pharma goes online: it’s not always as easy as “turning on the laptop”. But, given the right expertise, there is almost always a solution to market to your target audience online.

Yet, the strict HWG regulations do not apply to all online providers – they cover only Pharma companies, clinics, and doctors and not all websites offering health-related information. Many things are possible on those sites, so long as they are dealing with “common illnesses”, and so long as they do not advocate for their users to diagnose themselves or engage in self-treatment.

Be safe with Pharma & Healthcare SEO

We are aware that quite a few well thought-out steps are necessary to create an effective and legally sound Pharma or healthcare website. Apart from content and design, each subpage must conform to the HGW regulations while still being ‘marketable’. And that’s precisely our area of expertise. We know the difference between ‘normal’ SEO, and Pharma/healthcare SEO – and we know what to do if the whole process takes longer than expected due to a text being held up in the legal department for three months.

Using our extensive experience and knowledge of the often unclear and legally difficult situation, we can:

  • Create and run publishing websites, information websites, and health guides on your behalf; we can optimise these to achieve outstanding Google rankings, making more and more potential customers aware of your products
  • Optimise your current corporate website, e.g. to offer relevant and engaging content to professional circles
  • Advertise your current website online to increase brand impact and raise awareness on social media platforms

Partnering up with an integrated digital marketing and SEO agency who feels at home in the world of Pharma and healthcare, you can now look forward to increasing your customers by up to a factor of three – just via SEO, mind you.

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