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Who’s Eating My Lunch?


Strategies for parsing actual vs. keyword competitors in paid search

When building a paid search strategy for a pharma brand, knowing who you’re competing against in the keyword bid auction is no less important than understanding what your audience is searching for. Central to this insight is an appreciation of the makeup of that competition and how it differs from the key rivals in your SWOT analysis.

As a case in point, suppose you are responsible for marketing the second FDA-approved drug for a particular illness for which the research pipeline has heated up. You may reasonably expect a clear path to securing one of the top two positions for core search terms pertaining to the indicated disease state, and a head-to-head chess game as you vie for dominance against your first-to-market rival.

A more complete picture of the task at hand emerges when you consider that your paid search ads compete in an auction against those from all other advertisers who bid on the same body of keywords. To be your keyword competitor, the bidder’s product need not compete for your indication, nor must it be a pharmaceutical company at all. Keyword competitors commonly emerge from adjacent categories seeking the same audiences, and compete with pharma brands for ad space, including:

• Medically-related non-profits and fundraising event marketers
• Hospital groups, clinics, facilities, and treatment providers
• Web publishers and media properties of all types

While FDA regulations strive to ensure that the content of search ads and their accompanying landing pages are balanced with safety information and not misleading with respect to claims, keyword selection is largely immune from restrictions. So how does non-pharma paid search activity affect you, and why should you take it seriously?

• When a keyword competitor’s ads appear above yours, they deprive you of the coveted top position and reduce your clickthrough rate
• When they appear below, they push-up your actual costs-per-click
• When there are many, they may take all positions and yours might not appear at all

No Such Thing as a Pharma-Only Search Results Page

To illustrate, let’s break down who’s advertising on queries for “arthritis treatment options.”

Keyword competitors versus actual competitors in pharma SEM
Only one of the four ads appearing is from a prescription drug brand. In this case, an unbranded ad by Xeljanz (tofacitinib) competes for space with nonregulated advertisers. Note that both a treatment provider and a prescription medication can legitimately reach consumers searching for “arthritis treatment options.” The presence of the provider’s ad is perfectly appropriate – and it also costs Xeljanz the top ad position in this instance.

The lower ads affect this brand too, because this is an auction in which the actual cost per click is just one penny more than the next lower advertiser’s bid. If there were no lower advertisers, then there would not be the same upward pricing pressure. Now let’s look at search results for “depression treatment options.”

Unbranded pharma keyword competition in paid search
An unbranded ad for Trintellix (vortioxetine) comes in third position behind two treatment centers and ahead of an advocacy organization. So how can you know who your keyword competitors are and how to respond?

Managing Non-Pharma Keyword Competition

When another advertiser appears on the same search results pages as yours often enough, they will register in the Auction Insights Report in your search engine account. Your agency should have no problem including this in regular reporting, and keeping you apprised of what they’re doing about it.

The recommended actions depend on whether it’s more important to beat keyword competitors for top position, or simply keep their activity from impacting your efficiency and costs.

Some options are:

Pay more. You can use a “Top of Page’ bid strategy in Google and simply bid higher in Bing to place your ad higher in search results – regardless of who else wants those keywords.

Increase Quality Scores. If ads that better answer user queries direct to landing pages that better serve the audience, then Quality Scores should rise. The result is higher ad positions for less money. You can build a better site and allow more compelling ad copy in order to get better ad placements, without paying more per click.

Use negative keywords. A negative keyword will prevent your ads from showing for queries that include the given term. But caution: A negative like “facility” would not stop your ad from competing with a treatment center for showing against the query “depression treatment options.” But it would prevent it if the user somehow included the word “facility” in a query that would otherwise trigger your ad. This means you are proactively opting-out of the least-relevant overlapping search results, in some (but not nearly all) instances. A robust and well-planned negative keyword strategy is just one tool.

Opt-Out of the least-productive overlaps. Let’s say a prescription depression drug’s SEM effort includes a “causes of depression” ad group that produced very few conversions while fighting a higher number of keyword competitors who publish articles about the “causes of depression.” Why fight so fiercely for your worst-performing traffic segment? You could simply pause that ad group so your SEM budget can then fund all the other traffic segments that remain in rotation, and don’t have as many others bidding on their same keywords.

A lot more can be said about assessing keyword competitors for potential partnerships and addressing those less-honorable keyword-competing characters out there who flaunt trademark law. But first on your list should be the recognition that it’s more than just competing brands that are competing for your ad space… and incorporating this reality into any real SEM strategy.


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