How Pharma can win back its online voice

Is your content even a tiny part of the online conversations about your disease and therapeutic areas? A look at the search results might horrify you

Customer engagement now starts online. Around 80% of patients Google a recommended or newly-prescribed medication. And doctors routinely use search engines too – to stay up to date, to verify assumptions and so on.

Indeed, it may be no exaggeration to say that the answers found online are possibly the biggest influence on patients and HCPs today. Understanding their real-world digital information experience is, therefore, critical to identifying the content influencing their behaviour. 
But exploring what they really see and hear via search may shock you.

Despite pharma’s investment in evidence-based, balanced and accessible content designed for HCPs and patients, this is often buried far out of reach from the billion-plus health-related questions being asked of Google each day.

Pharma's voice often simply isn't cutting through. An unsettling proportion of top search engine results is a blend of blog-based click-bait, self-published ‘authorities’, individual patient reviews, highly technical clinical publications and locally irrelevant information. 
How bad could it be? 

Well, there’s a good way to find out.

Share of SERPs
Since the answers at the top of a search are the ones that count, a useful fundamental measure of any pharma company’s visibility in search is what turns up on page one of search engine results pages (SERPs). After all, how often do you search beyond the first page of the results? 

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, assessing the nature of the answers on page one of search as seen through the eyes of pharma's stakeholders has not, hitherto, been a routine activity for pharma. Instead, it has remained focused on conventional search engine optimisation (SEO) approaches to drive digital prominence, celebrating website traffic as measured from the back-end.

But this strategy might not be meaningful, says Julia Walsh, CEO, Brand Medicine International and author of the book What We Really Ask Dr. Google. “The goal of SEO is to be on page one, but do we know if this is the case across all the questions patients ask? 

What if patients use different words or phrases to the ones used for SEO hooks?  “Patients use words to refer to their symptoms and body parts that we don’t use,” says Walsh. “When I have shown clients the analysis, it has been an uncomfortable moment of truth. Their content is not there. In some instances, vocal ‘super-reviewers’ dominate the digital landscape instead,” says Walsh.

Analysing SERPs will reveal the, possibly ugly, truth. Following the answers that search engine pages surface for real-world questions illuminates a series of blind spots in the digital landscape. 

A new KPI
The top results for a particular search term may link to out of date information. Or people may ask questions in English when you expect them to ask these in their first language, for example. This may be because they expect to see richer answers in English or it may be that Google finishes their search query for them through auto suggest in English.

Knowing what related content is surfaced in these search results is another important factor that few consider. “It’s not just about us being on page one or not, but really knowing what else is on page one,” says Walsh. “Which websites are dominating those SERPs? Is it a US-based medication site? Perhaps your competitors own it. Or it could be a random doctor from Nigeria talking about an alternative therapy.

“If we want to totally understand the customer in that digital landscape and make sure we are turning up when they need us to, we should see share of SERPS as a new KPI for helping us move our own content up the ladder. We are spending a lot of money as an industry and SERPs reveals the ROI of information.”

Walsh’s realisation of the importance of looking at search results like this came with early attempts to map the patient experience in search, which revealed that key websites of interest to her clients were completely absent from page one of Google, hinting at the scale of brands’ irrelevance and the extent to which the search results were leading patients elsewhere. 

“What I needed to do was to prove, for real, across a category: who are the prominent digital influencers? And what is the ranking of our client’s digital assets? If we know this, we can truly determine who are the key influencers of the narrative,” says Walsh. 

Driving the narrative

To this end, Dr Lilly Rigoli from Brand Medicine International has developed a tool to automate what were laborious manual processes, scraping search results across all questions related to a particular topic - perhaps a brand name or a diagnosis - to reveal the relative digital share of voice for all online publishers.

The findings can be stark. In one project for an implant maker, Walsh discovered that a single user who had reviewed it negatively was driving the entire online narrative despite not having given her body the required time to adjust to the implant.

Such insights serve as a starting point from which to take action. “It’s really important to know what is coming up. It gives us a way to clean up the internet for patients regarding misinformation, clickbait, or for different markets where there might be differing dosages,” says Walsh.

“We also have capabilities to undertake a deeper dive analysis of the digital landscape to measure and categorise the relative presence of misinformation versus other types of content such as news, blogs, vlogs, clinical papers and so on.”

As well as showing what other voices beyond pharma are dominating these conversations, share of SERPs also reveals the nature and quality of your own presence. If the top search return includes a 120-page PDF your brand produced that might or might not contain the answer to the question being asked, it’s clear it’s going to be difficult to find the answer to a specific question quickly.

Importantly, such insights can also show the way forward, identifying how content can be improved for patients and HCPs. SERPs analysis also offers a way to flag misleading content with search engines to get it de-prioritised.

“And it offers us the opportunity to know who the digital opinion leaders are,” says Walsh. “We can work with these people and share releases with them or at least buy ads on their YouTube video.

“The overall goal is to clean up the internet for patients and then let our content do the job it is designed to do: encourage people with symptoms to see their doctor earlier, to reassure people grappling with a frightening diagnosis and to ensure people who have been prescribed a medicine are guided by evidence-based advice to take it properly and not be deterred by misinformation. The first step towards this goal is simply to start listening to search data.”