FDA logoWe recently reviewed this FDA warning letter sent on January 29, 2013 to Medical Doctors Research (MDR), a nutritional supplement manufacturer.

The letter cited a variety of issues, but the one that caught our attention was the reference to the search within the website. MDR included a site search functionality where someone could enter a keyword and it provides results from the pages within that website. The FDA letter notes: “In addition, typing the key word ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ into your product search field located on your website brings up your product lists to include Fitness tabs for Men, Longevit – E and others, implying your products are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of such diseases. Your products are not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced uses, and therefore, the products are ‘new drugs’ under Section 201(p) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321(p)].”

Site search results depend on the algorithm used in the site search functionality and the content on the pages of the site. Search algorithms can be developed using a number of different methods. Some algorithms may search the body content of the page and others may be more complex taking more data into account like Google or Bing would. The bottom line is that the site owner has control over how their internal site search provides results and those results, like any other messaging, need to be compliant.

A few articles written on this letter have referenced metadata. That could be the case, but metadata isn’t the only way to configure site search, and the letter only cited the result, not the method used. Did MDR try to manipulate Google’s rankings and instead end up manipulating their own site search? We don’t really know. The problem has been fixed on the site. The FDA has previously addressed that metadata needs to be compliant via a 2010 letter to Novartis.

Some articles have described this feedback as the FDA’s opinion on overall “Internet Search.” That may be overreaching a bit, because “Internet Search” is a much broader term, including Google and Bing’s algorithms, which haven’t been cited in the letter at all.

Key takeaways
The learnings can be summarized as follows:

  1. Site owners have full responsibility for the content they create and the design and development of the site that displays it.
  2. Reviewing the content on the site is a good start. Including metadata and site search functionality is a more complete review of how the site will be viewed and perceived by a visitor, and all of that information needs to be compliant.
  3. Not every company develops and maintains their own website, so it is important that your digital agency partner has completed compliance training and understands how these messaging rules apply to their work with the website. Legal teams should already understand which pieces of digital information should be checked within their review, and the agency should be able to provide guidance on that if internal site search hasn’t been reviewed yet.

One thing that should be noted is that the letter is not referencing Google, Bing or any other search engine. Nor do you as a site owner, have control over which keywords your website is going to be shown for in the search results within Google or Bing. Some might argue that search engine optimization (SEO) is exactly that, but in truth SEO is not something the website owner controls. Google and Bing are always revising their algorithms to provide the most relevant and correct results regardless of any SEO keyword wish list from a website owner.  That said, it is important to both optimize for organic search and be compliant with content and metadata at the same time.

What impact do you think this letter has on SEO for pharma?