Since writing about FDA’s letter to Novartis regarding the content of a Facebook Search Button — see “Implications of FDA’s Warning Letter to Novartis Regarding Facebook Share Widget” and “Who’s in Charge of Your ‘Invisible’ Metadata? WARNING: Don’t Invoke the ‘Invisibility Rule’” — several other experts have offered their analysis and recommendations. I already have referred to “Digitas Health Facebook Regulatory Alert” in a previous post. Here I’d like to focus on what Jonathan Richman and Bridge Worldwide have to say.

Specifically, Jonathan addresses my thoughts on how this may affect search engine marketing by pharmaceutical companies. Jonathan comments, in the Bridge Worldwide Digital Alert-Facebook Sharing Warning Letter (find it here),

“While there may be a simple way to allow for compliant Facebook sharing by using Facebook tags, the larger issue that the FDA is citing really focuses on the use of META tags [my emphasis]. In fact, this latest ruling seems to indicate that FDA doesn’t necessarily have an issue with Facebook or any other type of social sharing, but rather how META tags are written by companies. Since manufacturers control the content of the META tags, it is subject to the same regulations as every other piece of content on their sites [my emphasis]. Since the content of these META tags is being used in search engine results and now with social sharing, these tags are being taken out of the site and out of context. This means that the content of the tags now appears without fair balance. This is a violation of DDMAC guidelines. Therefore, DDMAC may be suggesting that META descriptions be written to either include fair balance or written without the drug indication (i.e., a generic, non-product related statement) [my emphasis].”

The problem is this: while it is easy to write a fully compliant META description that includes fair balance, search engines will reproduce only the first 160 characters when displaying that description as part of the natural search result. Facebook share buttons are even worse: they ignore everything after the first 50 characters.

“What this means,” notes Bridge Worldwide in its Alert, “is that if you created a META description that included full fair balance what is displayed in search results and social sharing will not include the full text, however, the liability of companies could be reduced or eliminated. Consider the case where someone copies only a portion of your content and republishes it. The company is not liable since they did not create the copied version and do not control how people use their content. The corollary to the current situation would be when someone shares (or Likes) a page on Facebook, companies are not responsible for how the content is displayed, but rather what the original content was. This is a matter for each company’s legal and regulatory teams to determine, but likely has risk because due to intent.”

Bridge Worldwide reminds us that META descriptions have “very little, if any, impact on search engine rankings. However, excluding META descriptions or creating unrelated, generic ones, may impact clickthrough rates in search results. Many people read the descriptions in search results to determine which results to click, as they help inform what the site is about before they visit.”

When there are space constraints to deal with, as is the case here, what’s a pharma company to do in order to remain compliant with FDA regulations AND provide useful information to consumers searching for information? Bridge Worldwide has some suggestions, which you can find in its alert, but the ultimate authority is the FDA, which I hope addresses this problem in new guidance regarding the answer to the question it posed at the November, 2009 hearing:

“Are there proposed solutions that may help address regulatory concerns when using social media tools associated with space limitations or tools that allow for real-time communications to present product information?”

For more on that with results from a PMN survey on this issue, see “Regulatory Solutions to Overcoming Space Limitations in Pharma Social Media Communications.”