Google SEM Changes Update

In June, Google announced changes to the ways search engine marketing (SEM) would work for marketers of prescription drugs. The background on the changes and the full original update is available here.

Recently, Google has provided additional detail about the new vanity URL policy, some new options, and hard dates for implementation.

First a quick backgrounder (see the earlier post for a more extensive background).


Google eliminated the black box ad format that was created in 2009, and it announced that changes would be coming to its policy on the use of redirecting URLs (aka vanity URLs) by marketers of prescription products. SEM ads that make use of redirecting URLs are one specific instance of a more general category of ad I call redirecting ads.

Redirecting ads are not limited to search engines, but they're featured very prominently in search engine marketing. The basic idea behind a redirecting ad is that the ad itself does not promote a prescription product, instead it directs viewers to another location (website, toll free number, etc.) where a prescription product is being promoted. Marketers of prescription products make use of them extensively in space-limited contexts, such as SEM, because it can be difficult to fit all of the required elements from a full product promotion into such contexts.

For SEM ads, marketers often have to use these ads because their only other option is using a reminder ad, and a reminder ad is by definition worthless if the person seeing the ad doesn't already know the name of the product.

So, the key features of a redirecting SEM ad are:

  1. Does not mention or imply a specific prescription product
  2. Provides a link to a prescription product website
  3. Displays a URL that does not match the destination page URL
It's that third element (the mismatch between the display and the destination URL) that has caused Google some agita. Google has long had a policy that prevents advertisers from having a significant mismatch between the display and destination URL. Google has previously been making an exception to that policy for marketers of prescription products precisely because there didn't seem to be any other option for them when a reminder ad would not work.

June Announcement

In June, Google announced that it would be changing its exception to that policy. At the time, Google said that instead of permitting marketers to invent their own display URL, Google would limit marketers to just three options.

  1. Use CompanyName as the display URL
  2. Use as the display URL
  3. Use "Prescription treatment website" or "Prescription device website" as the display URL

Latest Update

Now, Google has changed those options. First, Option 1 is no longer available. The only possible display URL using a company's name is for the display URL to be Moreover, to use that option, the URL itself must be live and the advertiser must own the URL. It is important to note that although the DISPLAY URL will be, the DESTINATION URL  (i.e., the page people land on when they click on the ad) is completely under the control of the advertiser and does not have to be the company's main website.

In addition, the display URLs available under Option 3 have expanded significantly. Whereas the June announcement mentioned only two possibilities ("Prescription treatment website" or "Prescription device website"), there are now six display URLs available in both English and Spanish. Those display URLs are:
  1. Prescription treatment website
  2. Prescription device website
  3. Medical device website
  4. Preventative treatment website
  5. Prescription contraception website
  6. Prescription vaccine website
In Spanish:
  1. Sitio de tratamientos con receta
  2. Sitio de dispositivos con receta
  3. Sitio de dispositivos médicos
  4. Sitio de tratamientos preventivos
  5. Sitio de anticonceptivos con receta
  6. Sitio de vacunas con receta

Again, just as was previously announced, manufacturers of prescription products will be able to choose any of these display URLs, but whereas "CompanyName" in is a template that will be filled in with the actual company's name, the options above must appear exactly as presented.


In addition to this change in the number of options, and the Google text options, Google has also announced the timing for these changes to take effect. There are three timing deadlines to keep in mind. The first is now.

Marketers who choose to make use of the option to use as the display URL can immediately begin doing so. There is no need to wait, but there's also no requirement to do that immediately.

The next milestone is February 1, 2016. Beginning on that date, all of the 12 display URLs (six in English and six in Spanish) will be available as possibilities for redirecting ads to use.

Finally, the deadline for transitioning to these new options is March 1, 2016. On that date, no ads that are running using customized vanity URLs will be able to run. All ads must switch over to either of the two options:
  2. One of Google's 12 display URLs
    1. Prescription treatment website
    2. Prescription device website
    3. Medical device website
    4. Preventative treatment website
    5. Prescription contraception website
    6. Prescription vaccine website
    7. Sitio de tratamientos con receta
    8. Sitio de dispositivos con receta
    9. Sitio de dispositivos médicos
    10. Sitio de tratamientos preventivos
    11. Sitio de anticonceptivos con receta
    12. Sitio de vacunas con receta


Search engines are vital to people using the Internet looking for health information. Consequently, marketers cannot afford to ignore SEM ads, and since these changes have been announced, there is plenty of time to update SEM campaigns to conform to these new Google-specific guidelines, and it is worth emphasizing that as I write this blog post, there is no word as to whether Yahoo!, Bing, or other search engines will also be adopting similar policies.

Additionally, marketers and their regulatory counterparts will have to review these ads to determine whether they need to be adjusted beyond the change in URL to avoid the implication of a specific prescription product; and we will have to wait to see how users adapt to seeing multiple ads using the same words as their display URL for unique ads.