Google to shelve unlicensed drug ads

The search giant says it will no longer allow unlicensed pharmacies to buy advertisements on its Web site, following similar moves by rivals Microsoft and Yahoo.

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
3 min read
Search giant Google said it will no longer allow unlicensed pharmacies to buy advertisements on its Web site, following similar moves by rivals Microsoft and Yahoo.

Google spokesman David Krane on Monday said the company plans to phase out advertisements from organizations that appear to bypass U.S. federal government drug regulations to sell prescription medications on the Web. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company said it will hire an outside consultant to begin sorting through its customers to identify which advertisers are no longer welcome.

"We are planning on verifying sensitive pharmaceutical ads using a third party to ensure compliance with our policies," Krane wrote in an e-mail. "We believe these changes will help both our users and advertisers by ensuring consumer choice and quality in online pharmacies."

Over the last several years, scads of unlicensed pharmacies have gone into business online, selling prescription drugs such as the painkillers Vicodin and OxyContin to consumers without requiring evidence of proper medical approval. Last month, Overture Services, the commercial search subsidiary of Yahoo, announced that it had placed the last of its advertisements related to online pharmacies or pharmaceutical drug sales. Microsoft's MSN portal, one of Overture's biggest partners, also said it wanted the ads removed from its site. MSN licenses commercial search results from Overture.

Like Overture, Google lets advertisers bid for placement in search results on its site, related to specific keywords. The ads appear as "sponsored listings" alongside traditional search results. The program syndicates the sponsored listings, along with the nonpaid, algorithmic search results with which they appear, to Google partners including America Online. Under this model, Google search users who entered the name of a particular controlled drug were rewarded with pages of companies that promised sales of the substances, many of which appeared to ignore the legal issues attached to prescription narcotics in the United States.

The Google announcement comes in the wake of an aggressive lobbying campaign launched by U.S. pharmacy trade group the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) and Drugstore.com, one of the Net's largest online pharmacies. Carmen Catizone, executive director of NABP said that he is pleased with Google's decision, but indicated that there remains a great deal of work to be done to protect the public from unlicensed drug purveyors.

"Google has taken a good first step, and I hope they work with us in validating which Web sites are acting illegally," Catizone said. "However, along with not accepting ads and limiting search terms, we need companies like this to help us push the government for better controls."

Catizone said NABP is pressuring the Federal Drug Administration, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, state legislatures and credit card companies to help put illegal drug distributors out of business.

According to researcher Nielsen/NetRatings, online pharmacies accounted for some 2 billion advertising impressions in October, making the segment the second-largest group of advertisers within the health industry on the Net, behind weight-loss marketers. The health market made up about 5 percent of total online ad sales in October, Nielsen reported.