Paid search is typically seen as one of the most flexible digital channels, allowing you to quickly and efficiently set up campaigns that drive performance in a tight window. In my years working in paid search this has usually been the case. However, there are certain, highly regulated industries that flip these perceptions on their head.

Healthcare – both pharmaceuticals and animal health – is one of these industries; where regulators and search engines have strict compliance requirements which place limitations on how we can execute advertising campaigns.

Despite these challenges, it is possible to run impactful paid search advertising for clients in these industries. This article looks at ways to approach landing pages and ad targeting to ensure your campaigns are both effective and compliant. I’m focusing on healthcare professional (HCP) campaigns where you may be promoting websites which contain drug information, that doctors and other HCPs will be accessing as resource.

Note: Before setting up any advertising make sure you have applied for healthcare related advertising certification from Google (see the Help Centre) and Bing (speak to your rep).

Landing pages: adhering to Google and Bing advertising regulations

Most countries have their own regulatory systems in place when it comes to advertising pharmaceutical brands and products. However, one thing that is fairly universal (barring the US), is that landing pages accessed through paid search cannot have any mention of drug brand or molecule names.

Many healthcare companies are making websites aimed at HCPs, which by their nature need to talk about the drugs involved. Providing this information for HCPs is fine, and is often handled by requiring people visiting the website to confirm their location and HCP status before they can enter the site, however Google does not permit any landing page from a paid search ad to hold any of this information.

This means when you’re promoting these sites through paid search, you must build dedicated landing pages which meet compliance requirements. If you use landing pages containing non-compliant information, the activity will be disapproved until all traces of the brand or molecule names are removed.

We have found the following to be really important in this process.

1. Get close and personal

Work as closely as possible with the client, explaining all of the rules set out by the regulators and search engines. Get confirmation from them that no drug or molecule names will be used before you begin setting up any paid search accounts. If possible, secure an opportunity to discuss these requirements further with the developers and content teams who are involved. This is to make sure everyone who may be influencing content is extremely clear on what can and cannot appear on the page.

2. Don’t try to trick the system

You may think of creating overlays to mask content which mentions drug or molecule names; with the intention that paid search users land on the overlay before reaching the actual page content. The search engines will spot this and it’ll likely cause disruption to your activity. Therefore, you should always create a dedicated landing page for paid search, rather than attempting to use overlays as a workaround.

3. Attention to detail

Brands and molecule names aren’t always the easiest to find. Be sure to check that they aren’t included in any navigation drop down menus, headers and footers, or terms and conditions.

4. Account for the client’s internal processes

We’ve found that as well as regulator and search engine rules, clients’ legal and compliance teams often have their own policies around what can be said on websites and in ad copy. So we recommend planning enough time for all aspects of the campaign to go through a rigorous approval process ahead of the live date.

Targeting: reaching healthcare professionals

One of the other big challenges for paid search in pharmaceuticals is around how we target the ads. Within paid search, we can’t ultimately be sure we’re only showing our ads to HCPs. This means that clients’ legal teams will only be able to sign off on paid search activity for HCP websites where it can be very clearly shown that all possible steps have been taken to avoid accidentally targeting ads to patients.

Usually our primary method for trying to reach the right people with our campaigns is thoughtful keyword selection and ad copy. We’re always trying to balance having a wide array of possible keywords in our campaigns, while also attempting to minimise the number of times our search ads get clicked on by people who aren’t in the target audience. It often comes down to tone, use of appropriate technical terms, and so on. We typically use more medical terms for HCPs campaigns and limit broader, symptom based terms for patient ads.

Pharma articles from the Econsultancy blog

There is a fairly new tool that we think is also worth checking out for these types of campaigns. LinkedIn Profile Targeting – made possible by Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016 – allows advertisers to target Microsoft Advertising (formerly Bing Ads) campaigns to users in paid search, based on the company, job role and industry listed on their LinkedIn profile.

This tool can really benefit HCP paid search campaigns, by helping us up the bid when we know it’s an HCP searching (based on job role information from LinkedIn). This increases our chances of reaching our target audience of HCPS, even when we’re operating with stripped back keyword lists.

There are some limitations to LinkedIn Profile Targeting. The first and most obvious being that it requires users to be searching on Bing and be logged into LinkedIn at the time. The targeting options are currently limited to ‘bid only’, rather than ‘target and bid’; meaning you can set up your campaigns to increase your bid based on LinkedIn profile information, but you can’t limit your campaigns to target just based on LinkedIn information alone.

Despite the reach of this tool being somewhat limited because it’s only available on Bing, there’s further value to be extracted: you can apply learnings from Microsoft Ads campaigns to improve your Google Ads campaigns in parallel. For example, looking at the results for campaigns which utilised LinkedIn Profile Targeting on Bing may help you identify keywords that have previously been removed from a more niche targeting strategy, but are in fact relevant and effective. You can then test adding those keywords back into Google Ads campaigns, to see how results are impacted.


The idea of running paid search in a highly regulated industry such as healthcare may seem intimidating at first. And it’s true that it requires expertise and careful planning. However, the most important thing is not to take any shortcuts or attempt to get around compliance requirements.

Take the time to understand the regulations for each market you’re running campaigns in, so your campaigns go off without a hitch when you launch them. This will help minimise disruption to the activity, and – perhaps most importantly – build trust between your marketers and the legal teams that are signing off on these digital strategies. Once you have established trust and a good working relationship between these teams, you’ll be able to gradually build on and evolve your approach to paid media over time.

Paid Search Best Practice Guide