Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FDA Targets Website Search Results

In case you missed it, an FDA warning letter issued late January addressed the issue of how website searches associate keyword searches with search results. In other words, when a visitor to a compnay's website searches the website for a certain condition such as cancer or diabetes, if a product name displays in the results, then this is an implication that the product treats that condition. According to FDA, the company that owns the website can be liable for this association.

The letter was issued to “MDR Fitness Corp,” a vitamin and supplements company that, according to its website, applies “the latest discoveries about nutrients and how they benefit the human body.” MDR, by the way, stands for “Medical Doctors Research.” The warning letter cited additional problems such as a failed facility inspection, the promotion of supplements for conditions which cause the products to be drugs, and overstated personal testimonials.

Buried in the letter – but highlighted by this article from Forbes– was this information:
“ … 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 …”


The site search at MDR.com is still active, but the offending search results seem to have been disabled. The site, after all, is an ecommerce site for the company and likely a revenue generator. It’s not known if the website search functionality was custom-built (and therefore strategically manipulated) or driven dynamically by a tool like Google, but it raises an issue that, to my knowledge, hasn't been addressed by FDA in the past: Are companies liable for the way every single possible search result displays on their site? If so, this could be problematic. What if, for example, a search for the word "infection" yields results with a link to product prescribing information that warn patients NOT to use the product if they have an infection? Is the mere association of the condition or symptom with a product name enough to imply a claim?

The Forbes article headline reads, misleadingly, “FDA Regulates Internet Search” This was NOT a warning letter related to Internet search engines such as Google or Bing. (However, if you’re new to the pharma marketing landscape, a slew of letters related to search engine marketing have been issued by FDA in the past.)

MDR is not a pharmaceutical company. And I can say that clients I’ve worked with would not even consider manipulating a search so that over-hyped claims or off-label information appeared with certain searches. If you read the letter, MDR Fitness was clearly operating in a manner well outside the realm of FDA law in a number of ways.

But there certainly can be implications for pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Site search functionality is an important component for a positive user experience, especially on content-rich sites. On-site search shouldn't be an afterthought.

What search tools do your websites use? Even if the results are dynamically generated, have you tested the various combinations?

If not, it might be time to take a gander.

1 comment:

arka said...

I think some where we are trying to get into a risk-averse world, which is practically not possible..but still (as mentioned) the companies need to be overtly cautious about possible scenarios that are unprecedented.