Next week I will be participating in a search engine marketing panel discussion at CBI’s 5th Annual eMarketing for the Pharmaceutical Industry conference in Philadelphia.

Everything I know about search engine marketing I learned from an article by an expert (see “Searching for Answers on Search Engine Marketing?“; print available), but the options have come a long way since. As the panel description states:

Search engines play a major role in health information research.— a recent survey found 93% of respondents used search engines to research medications, conditions and treatment options. Not surprisingly, search is one of the fastest-growing categories of online advertising.

Pharmaceutical marketers need to have a good search strategy, but one tactic I find questionable is “paid inclusion.” Paid Inclusion results are listings that look like natural or algorithmic results, but are actually paid for by marketers.

The issue, as I see it, is that the searcher (eg, patient looking for credible health information on the Net) does not know that the paid inclusion is a fee-based result of the search and not strictly based on the relevancy or popularity of the site. Paying a fee gets you in the game, but does not, in itself, guarantee a high position in the natural search list. However, it is my understanding that marketers can also supply key words as part of the paid inclusion option and improve the results.

The problem is that someday a pharma company using this technique might be exposed in a critical Wall Street Journal or New York Times article.

Way back when the commercial Internet was young, the Web site was criticized for confusing editorial with advertising by charging hospitals to be listed in an editorial page on their site. That is, they did not tell visitors that hospitals paid to be listed there.

That lead to the development of the eHealth Code of Ethics, which I helped develop. Paid inclusion can also lead to consusing “editorial” (natural, unbiased) and “advertising,” which paid inclusion looks like. Therefore, is there a similar need for a Search Engine Code of Ethics? And should paid inclusion be shunned? (Google and MSN discontinuedtheirr paid inclusion option, but Yahoo! has not.)

I hold the pharma industry to a high standard. It’s not like other businesses — it’s business is to improve health. Sometimes this means that tactics that may legitimatley be used by other businesses may not be appropriate for the pharmaceutical industry. Is paid inclusion one of these tactics?

I would like to know your thoughts on the subject of paid inclusion as a pharma marketing search engine tactic. Please take the Pharma Search Engine Marketing Survey.