Google search adds medication info

Google has just expanded its search tool to include detailed information on medications. The goal: to give users verified information on a variety of drugs — and take more advantage of the pharmaceutical industry’s annual $900 million online ad spend.

Google started serving up tailored results to health-related search queries last year. Now the same search box can be used to call up fast facts about most medications, with the details being supplied by the National Institutes of Health. The idea is to organize more reliable information on drugs than can be found by basic Google searches.

Google actually partnered with the NIH — the chief reason that this search expansion won’t be available outside the U.S. — to develop its new search results. Now when you search for a particular medication, like Lipitor, for instance, the first result is a short description of what the drug is prescribed to do, followed by links to potential side effects, instructions, precautions, dietary restrictions and directions for what to do if you miss a dose. All of these links take you to the NIH website.

You will also notice, when you search for the commercial names of drugs (as opposed to the generic), there is almost always a text advertisement in the right-hand sidebar for that drug and a yellow sponsored link box above. So, for Lipitor, you get a link to Drugstore.com where you can buy the medication online. This appears to be a huge opportunity for the search giant to bolster its pharmaceutical advertising business.

The assumption is that better drug information will beget more drug-related queries, and therefore more opportunities to advertise medications to a wider audience. Doing some quick math based on how much of online advertising budgets is spent on search ads, Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land saysthat Google stands to make as much as $426 million off of pharmaceutical and health-related search advertising.

As PoliticsDaily points out, there seems to be a strong preference for popular, commercial drugs built into the new Google Health search engine. When you search for drugs like Lipitor, Yasmin, Ambien, etc., the link results and requisite ads are more accurate and mainstream. Well-know herbal and home remedies, like St. John’s wort and melatonin, didn’t produce the same quality of results — or any at all.

If you put the tool in the context of the money it could bring in for Google, it makes sense why more time was spent indexing lucrative, popularized drugs — the kinds you see commercials for on television. Yes, providing detailed drug data is serving a clear user need, but the profit component is no doubt a steering force.