Black Box Pharma Paid Search Ads and Removal of Vanity URLs

Marketing in the pharmaceutical industry has always been heavily legislated and restricted, with the FDA limiting what companies may say in advertisements. Nevertheless, Google will now provide several changes to pharmaceutical “black box” paid ads.

What are “Black Box” drugs?

The FDA can require a pharmaceutical company to place a boxed warning on a prescription drug’s labeling, signifying that medical studies suggest that these drugs may cause a serious or potentially life-threatening side effects. This leads “black box drugs” to have additionally restrictive advertising than others.

Traditional Google Black Box pharma paid search ads

Black box ads are required to include an additional description line that links to the important safety information (ISI) on the brand’s website. Due to the paid search ad’s limited character count, this additional text appears in grey on the third line of the ad description. Traditionally, the ISI is uploaded separately in the black box format, allowing advertisers to utilize the full 70 characters in the both description lines and incorporate the generic, branded and device names.

Upgraded URLs and paid ads

Google’s upgraded URLs help simplify and streamline URL management and tracking. They show Google the final URL (web address of your landing page) and what is merely a tracking code, thereby eliminating the headaches of having your URL re-crawled or pausing your ad due to an editorial review. For the time being, upgraded URLs are optional; however, after July 1st, 2015, Google will sunset the destination URL option and all destination URLs will automatically convert to final URLs.


These URL changes apply to Google’s Search Network, Display Network, and Shopping Campaigns, across all platforms and devices. This update will decrease load time for the tag to fire which allows for more accurate tracking performance, as Google can index the landing page faster.

How will Upgraded URLs affect Black Box pharmaceutical paid ads?

With the upgraded URLs mandated for July 1st, Google is making several other global changes to its system. As a result, it will be removing the current black box pharmaceutical ads and changing the vanity URL ad format. The ad removal will occur on July 20th, 2015 because the upgraded URLs will not be able to support this format (see more below). The vanity URL ad format will change on January 12th, 2016 to create a better user experience that conforms to Google’s advertising policies.

Removing black box ads

Starting on July 20, 2015, all black box search text ads for both desktop and mobile will stop serving in the current format; that’s because the new upgraded URLs will not support ads that require multiple destination URLs (different landing pages in same ad). It is important to note that certain brands may not be able to use the standard text ad format due to character limits; there might not be room for safety text along with the name.

Black Box Pharma Paid Search Options

Removing Vanity URLs

On January 12th, 2016, Google will be updating the way unbranded ad text with a vanity URL is displayed for a healthcare brand website. As stated within Google’s policy surrounding inaccurate display URL, the website displayed in the ad must “accurately show which website people will be taken to … after passing through any redirects.” It further explains that the domain displayed within the ad must match the landing page. However, pharmaceutical terms currently gain exception via “proxy display URLs.” There are three options to replace the vanity URL which would appear instead in the display URL field of the search text ads and Google Display Network.

Vanity URLs

Yahoo! And Bing

Starting on November 15th, 2015, Yahoo! And Bing will no longer support their current RAIS ad format for Black Box advertisers due to backend changes in the way they handle ad extensions. Advertisers will no longer be able to upload/update any Black Box ads in Yahoo!/Bing’s current format after July 30th, 2015. However, unlike Google, all Black Box ads on Yahoo!/Bing uploaded/ updated before July 30th, 2015 will continue to run as-is until November 15th, 2015 when the RAIS format is completely removed from the Yahoo!/and Bing platforms. A replacement ISI extension functionality may be introduced by September 30th, 2015 for Black Box ads, but nothing has been finalized of yet.

Point of View

Please see below for potential workaround options that adhere to the criteria set in both Google Pharma ad format updates. In regards to the black box update starting on July 20, 2015, the character length of the Generic name will determine which option is available to black box advertisers. Based on characters required for the Brand/ Generic names, advertisers may have the option of including the Generic name within headline, or, will instead need to include the Generic name within the first description field. If the Generic name doesn’t fit within the headline and needs to be served within the description field, a truncated ISI will need to fit into the second description field. Regarding the vanity URL update starting on January 12, 2016, we recommend the third option below as it follows our cautionary approach that avoids connection between brand and indication. However, we can consider submitting the other proposed ads that focus on the parent brand as opposed to the drug. It is vital to your campaign to work with your account manager and paid search team to understand the implications and how to properly address them. Bear in mind that Google will not provide an extension due to corporate legal approval for the text ads, and therefore, the authorization for the ad should be sought immediately to avoid ads going dark.

Forrester Search Marketing Wave - Catalyst

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