Unbranded pharmaceuticals website: what are the objectives?

Unbranded website dedicated to pathology: where to draw the line?

An interesting assessment of the new website dedicated to COPD (COPD English) by Glaxo US was recently published by 360online with Andrew Matthius as author.

These sites or portals dedicated to a particular disease or ailment, set up at the initiative of a pharmaceutical laboratory, are very common in the United States and much less so in Europe. This analysis of a recently launched website (August 2014) is an opportunity to review the objectives and impacts that can be expected from such an investment.


These “single” product or pathology sites are increasingly popular, especially in the United States. A consistent terminology is developing with:

 A branded website used for a site dedicated to a particular drug, primarily a US practice, with a good example here:



Tracleer branded website 

An unbranded website used for a site devoted to a disease or a particular ailment such as COPD, in this example.


copd.com homepage

This blossoming of thematic sites clearly reflects the hurdles to properly and efficiently communicating from one “single” corporate website; reading the article on the top 12 pharmaceutical labs’ corporate websites is recommended.

In the current example the website is for patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD: www.copd.com .

Note that this website is clearly identified as controlled by GSK, therefore the lab is, from a regulatory point of view, fully responsible for the published content.

Is that serious?

“This is not about sales, it’s not about our products, even though GSK is a leader in respiratory care.”

This is the statement from Darielle Ruderman, Senior Director of Respiratory Consumer Marketing of GSK US.

It is difficult to think that a company as serious as GSK does not seek a positive impact on its image and is therefore improving the final retention of patients eligible for their treatments. Why not share this and then explain why and how such online initiatives can contribute to better patient loyalty?
Probably because the answer is not so simple, and maybe because the impact, if it exists, is very difficult to measure.

What is the value of a domain name?

A significant element is the domain name used for this information and services portal: copd.com.

For those who are still referring to standards for the years 2000 – 2010, this may appear obvious and important; it is not, the domain name does not have much impact on web visibility.
What matters today is the quality of content and services. As an evidence, just remember the misadventures of sites like “cheapflight.com” after the roll-out of the various Google quality filters like Panda and Penguin. Some of these websites have closed their business!

This domain category is known as “exact match domain”. Huge numbers of comments are available on the net, all pointing the same way, domain name has little or no impact on website SEO (search engine optimization); at best it can help in memorizing the name.

SEO? What is that!

One can easily imagine that this copd.com domain was acquired by the agency (Havas New York) that developed the website for a significant amount of money because the equivalent domain for French speaking countries, bpco.com, is on sale for up to 15,000 US dollars. A pointless investment, and resources that could have been better allocated to rank up this site in the search engine results.

Type copd in your browser’s search window, the Glaxo website does not show up on the first two pages*, so it is virtually invisible! Therefore why invest in a domain name without any positive impact on your SEO?

* It is accepted that less than 15% of Internet users explore the second page of search results, there is no reliable data to pages 3 and beyond, but we can imagine less than 5%. These figures are even lower for searches from mobile devices (tablet or smartphone).

Unbranded pharmaceuticals website and portals: basically local initiatives

Interestingly the domain bpco.com is for sale by auction and therefore was not acquired by GSK. The French domain bpco.fr is already operated by a respiratory rehabilitation association. Thus, the roll-out of a similar initiative in French speaking countries was clearly not considered. However, the impact is marginal because the contribution of the domain name is marginal to the success of such a project.

Assessment of copd.com website


The author asked two experts to evaluate the new website by asking them a few questions (4 in total); it is therefore a rough methodology, nonetheless the results are of some interest.

The experts

First is Elizabeth Elfenbein, Partner at The CementBloc, a US based agency and Jim Lefevere, Director, Global Digital Marketing at Roche Diagnostics.

Results and insights

To the first question on the overall interest of such a website and the quality of its content, comments are rather positive; however this is not engaging as no evaluation grid was defined.

When it comes to points to improve, both experts have more to say. So Jim Lefevere, who clearly knows and uses specialized evaluation tools raises the question of consistency in the strategy for promotion of the website, with paid campaigns (paid search) on the one hand and on the other hand, little or no social networks initiatives, while 65% of the target audience are regular users of social networks (USA).

Investing in paid advertising campaigns to promote a website whose sole purpose is to offer information and services is an admission of failure. If the site was naturally popular, nobody would need to pay to promote it.

The important thing is (often) what you can’t see

Elizabeth Elfenbein noticed that the website appears on page 2 of Google search results for copd research (it seems that this position has declined since).

The first observation, yet again, is that the domain name is not king, in fact it has no impact in this case.

The same expert then lists several key points that clearly were not considered when developing the project, including:

  • improve title and description tags for the most important pages of the site
  • populate the image descriptive tags
  • include transcripts of the videos, read by search engines and useful for people with hearing or sight impairment

Further analysis of copd.com reveals multiple errors and approximations that illustrate the little attention paid to the structure of the website. Thus, the “keyword” metatags are filled in, a pointless exercise that will make those interested in SEO smile. Google hasn’t considered this tag since at least 2008. We are in 2015…


 If you are not convinced, the best thing to do is to listen to Matt Cutts, the emblematic Quality head of Google. Yes, for at least 7 years now, the keyword metatags have not been considered by Google for indexing websites, so why keep on doing it? Ignorance is, unfortunately, the most likely answer.
Matt Cutts

Primum non nocere

First do no harm. This medical principle could be applied to search engine optimization because if Google does not take into account the keywords tag for indexing sites, it is very likely that this is exploited by the penalizing filters and algorithms, Panda and Penguin. Nothing official from Google here, but many results clearly show that the use of these keyword metatags can be interpreted by Google as an over-optimization signal. And Google does not like, but not at all over-optimization; that’s official.

In conclusion, some obsolete and potentially penalizing practices are still being used on this website, whereas important and intangible principles for writing the title tags or the description of visual elements, images and videos, are badly neglected. Not surprising therefore that paid advertising campaigns are being used in an attempt to offset SEO weaknesses.

An unbranded website, and so what?

Jim Lefevere asks an excellent question, and carefully doesn’t give any answer: can such a website attract the attention of patients and retain it long enough to see a detectable and quantifiable impact?

The answer is probably no, but the simplest way is probably not to measure anything so you don’t have to bother with results analysis.

Meanwhile, Havas New York can be (very) proud to have developed a website that offers people suffering COPD immediate weather forecasts for their home by just entering their zip code; there was certainly a big need for local forecasts in this population.

Where is the web analytic?

Errors and omissions excepted, it is somewhat surprising to not find any “web tracking” or “web analytics” tool on the copd.com website. This once again highlights how these techniques and tools are neglected despite their importance and affordability.

In other words, website traffic as well as sources and users’ behavior are not tracked and therefore not analyzed. Conversely, it is very likely that the activities of registered users are properly monitored. Why not also consider looking at the website visitors without an active profile yet? It would certainly make it possible to identify pages or sections with issues to be fixed for globally improving the user experience and ultimately the attractiveness of the website.

A website is not static, it is not a printed document like a book; it is rather a magazine whose layout and content must permanently evolve to fit the needs and expectations of the readers.

Without web tracking and web analytics, this critical process cannot happen. That is why there are so many websites that after spectacular – and often costly – launches see their audience collapsing before disappearing from the web after a “more than usual” stretched budget cycle.

Unbranded disease website: take-home messages.

From this review of the copd.com website, some important points are key to keep in mind:

  • The investment for an explicit domain name or “exact match domain” is often costly and without any significant impact on organic SEO; at best it facilitates memorization of the website name, however very few internet users type the full website name into their browser.
  • More than for any other promotional website, organic SEO is a must as the efficacy and ROI of ad campaigns for attracting the targeted audience is uncertain to say the least.
  • Web analytical tools for, in particular, the tracking of visitors’ behavior is key to maintaining and developing an information and services portal website; the best web analytics tools must be integrated and access shared with the website’s editorial team.
  • Finally, such a program can and probably must be integrated into a global strategy to offer services and information to patients and their families; so it is useful to at least implement a comprehensive linking process from other websites of the laboratory starting with the corporate website, this is not the case in our example today – not surprising after reading the findings of the article reviewing the corporate websites of the 12 major pharmaceutical companies.