Google search ‘seems to favour rogue pharmacies’

Changes to Google’s search algorithm last year have resulted in illegitimate online pharmacies outranking legitimate platforms, claims a UK pharmacy owner.

The company – which says it doesn’t want to be identified – told that while Google says its August 1 changes have made searching safer, in practice “many legitimate and reputable sites have been negatively impacted and a large number of illegitimate pharmacies have started outranking well established businesses.”

The pharmacy operator says searches often result in sites that are not registered in the EU’s registered database of internet pharmacies, and are not displaying the logo scheme introduced in the Falsified Medicines Directive to try to protect consumers from purchasing counterfeit and otherwise illicit drugs.

“If it wasn’t for Google people would not be using these dodgy pharmacies,” said a spokesperson for the unidentified firm. “Google are facilitating this illegal trade which is essentially harmful to health,” she added.

Google’s update – called Medic – is reported to have focused on health, wellness and medical sites, giving greater prominence for what it calls ‘your money or your life’ (YMYL) sites. In the technology giant’s words, that means “reputable” sites that “can have an impact on your current or future wellbeing (physical, financial, safety, etc), and have content that is “created with a high level of expertise and authority.”

If the UK company’s claims are accurate, it seems something is going awry with Google’s search strategy. We reached out to the tech giant for comment but had not received a response by the time this article went to press.

The Growing Danger of Online Pharmacies

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According to the online pharmacy, searching google for "buy ibuprofen" for example results in a site appearing on the first page – where people are more likely to click and buy – despite not having a license to sell prescription medicine. Some recognised online pharmacies that comply with regulations are relegated to page two, it asserts.

“There appears to be little quality control in Google’s latest update and no concern for the fact they are promoting the use of potentially unsafe medicines,” it adds. Government statistics report 1 in 10 people in the UK have bought fake medical products online in the last year which they report “can lead to serious negative health consequences.”

One company that was prepared to be cited over the allegations is SEMrush, a search analytics company that says it mission is to “make online competition fair and transparent”.

SEMrush’s head of global marketing Olga Andrienko notes that changes to Google’s algorithms have made it becoming increasingly hard for websites to maintain the same positions in search for more than a few days.

“Any Google update can result in a dramatic rollback or a tremendous ranking boost for a website,” she says, adding however that “all of the Google’s updates aim at enhancing the relevance of the search results for the users.”

The search engine has some exclusive features in search for the healthcare industry, says SEMrush such as supercharged knowledge graphs for all types of illnesses and drugs, with downloadable information right on the result page. “This shows how seriously Google takes this industry, being one of the major sources of self-help information for people worldwide,” says Andrienko.

She goes on to say that “our analysis of the recent updates, including medical, has uncovered that there are several main areas that Google looks into [such as] content relevance and quality, including user signals of how people engage with it, and technical health and structure of the website.”

Ed. We’ll be keeping an eye on this emerging development and hope to report back with Google’s take on the claims as soon as possible. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to let is know your own experiences via or via our Twitter feed.

Image: PhotoMIX-Company / Pixabay

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