SEO for Medical Industry Retailers: Are You Leveraging Schema Markup to Meet FDA Standards?

January 27, 2016

Digital Marketing Tansy OBryant By Tansy OBryant

SEO can’t be undervalued in the world of online retail. There are plenty of retailers and brands in every industry fighting for a limited sliver of space on search engine results pages (SERPs).

One of the core principles of SEO is to optimize website copy. Digital marketers spend a lot of their time making sure that every letter of every word on a website is supercharged for SEO.

The SEO Problem

If you work in an industry that’s regulated by a government agency, as many retailers and brands that sell vitamins, supplements, medical devices and pharmaceuticals do, then you’re  subject to regulations such as the FDA Sunshine Act.  

The FDA strictly regulates website copy on medical and pharmaceutical websites. These limitations reduce the effectiveness of SEO marketing campaigns for the medical industry. Meeting FDA website-copy standards becomes expensive once a search marketing campaign has gone through multiple rounds with the Promotional Review Committee to ensure adherence to FDA regulations.

Some companies have attempted to get around the regulation by using spam tactics such as hidden content to trick the search engines into ranking them for website copy that isn’t visible on the page. These spam tactics include white text on a white background or using CSS to place copy off the page. Search engines can easily detect these spam tactics — and will dish out penalties accordingly.

The SEO Solution

Yes, there’s a solution! And it’s not a spam tactic that results in penalties.

Medical industry websites can reduce on-page copy and clarify information to search engines using markup. markup isn’t website copy that must go through FDA approval. While the specific Schema markup (website code that helps search engines determine the best results) is different for digital marketers advertising vitamins/supplements than it is for those advertising, say, medical devices, the same principle applies. The difference is that each industry has its own set of Schemas.

Below, we’ve outlined a detailed hypothetical scenario that illustrates a situation many pharmaceutical marketers face. And we’ve presented as a solution.

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Leveraging Schema Markup: A Pharmaceutical Hypothetical

In the world of pharmaceutical marketing, content that’s seen by patients and doctors receives the highest levels of scrutiny by the FDA. The content must “make no claim” that can’t be supported by the Indication Statement, Prescribing Information, Important Safety Information or Medication Guide. Big problem for SEO digital marketers! The disease and treatment keywords people search with on search engines aren’t typically used in the FDA copy or approved label.

  • Web content commonly seen by doctors and patients:
    • Webpage copy
    • Meta title tag and description
    • Alt tags and image titles (when a user hovers over an image in many popular browsers)

For example:

Drug X may be indicated for:“Symptomatic relief of non-infectious diarrhea in adult patients with stage three epithelial ovarian cancer on Adria and Taxoten.”

The average Google user doesn’t search like that. They may type into Google: “treatment for diarrhea with chemo.”

While many support blogs or homeopathic websites can use this last phrase in their content, the FDA prevents a drug-label marketer from using an informal phrase like “chemo” or broad statements like “treatment for diarrhea.”


In today’s search environment, organic search isn’t about using keywords but rather about creating semantic relationships between keywords. Pharmaceutical companies can create semantic relationships using markup language as metadata. By placing Schema in the metadata, it’s not seen on the page.

To understand how to use semantic markup languages from, you’ll need to first grasp the concept of “triples,” which is simply a way to logically connect three words or phrases. These triples help give a website an SEO advantage.

A triple consists of three parts: (1) Subject, (2) Predicate and (3) Object.

Continuing with our example from above, this is how the triple would break down:

  • Subject: “Drug X”
  • Predicate: “is indicated for”
  • Object: “noninfectious diarrhea”
  • Literal: “In adult patients with stage three epithelial ovarian cancer on Adria and Taxoten”

The relationship of the triple is described in the graph below. In the graph, Drug X has a relationship to non-infectious diarrhea and Adria and Taxoten.* Drug X has an indirect relationship to Epithelial Ovarian Cancer and Chemotherapy.


There are several ways to mark up the triple using on your homepage, Buy page and FAQ page.

Important note about FDA compliance and search engine relevancy:

  • For on-page content seen by the patient or doctor, enclose your markup in the <span>. Content within the <span> is also part of search engine evaluation for keyword prominence and density.
  • For content that isn’t supported by FDA guidelines, such as the itemprop alternate name, use the <meta> tag so it’s NOT visible on the page. Content within the <meta> is used to develop relevancy but is NOT part of a search engine’s evaluation for keyword prominence and density.


On the homepage, use using these Schemas and item properties:

  • name
  • alternateName
  • audience

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<div itemscope itemtype=””>

<h1><span itemprop=”name”>DrugX</span></h1>

<meta itemprop=”alternateName” content= “x-rofelamene” />

<meta itemprop=”audience” content= “women with ovarian cancer” />

<meta itemprop=”audience” content= “doctors treating ovarian cancer” />

<meta itemprop=”audience” content= “patients taking Adria and Taxoten” />

Note: Every* must have a “name” associated with it. Often an SEO specialist will provide you with new Schemas or item properties, assuming the developer understands that they must declare a “name.”

  • manufacturer
  • name

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”manufacturer” itemscope itemtype=””>

<span itemprop=”name”>XCorp</span>

  • name
  • audience

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”drugClass” itemscope itemtype=””>

<span itemprop=”name”>Antidiarrheal</span>

<meta itemprop=”audience” content= “adult women with epithelial ovarian cancer” />

  • name
  • alternateName
  • indication

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”indication” itemscope itemtype=””>

<span itemprop=”name”> {insert your FDA approved indication here} </span>

<meta itemprop=”alternateName” content= “diarrhea treatment associated with chemotherapy” />

  • applicableLocation
  • name

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”legalStatus” itemscope itemtype=””>

   <meta itemprop=”applicableLocation” content=”US”/>

   <meta itemprop=”name” content=”prescription drug” />

  • name
  • adverseOutcome

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”adverseOutcome” itemscope itemtype=””>

<meta itemprop=”name” content= “dehydration” />

  • contraindication
  • name
  • warning

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=”contraindication” itemscope itemtype=””>

<meta itemprop=”name” content=” rofelamene”/>

<span itemprop=”warning”>x-rofelamene may cause… </span>

  • name

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=” ” itemscope itemtype=” FDAcategoryX”>

<span itemprop=”name”>DrugX (x-rofelamene) may cause fetal harm. Do not use DrugX or x-rofelamene if you are pregnant or may become pregnant. </span>

Buy Page

Many pharmaceutical drug sites have pages where the patient can receive a pharmacy coupon code or a page where the doctor can order the drug. In that case, the content is sales related, and markup is no longer appropriate. Switch to on this page to explain to search engines that this page is related to e-commerce.

  • name

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<span itemprop=” ” itemscope itemtype=””>

<span itemprop=”name”>DrugX</span>

<meta itemprop=”alternateName” content=”x-rofelamene” />

<meta itemprop=”category” content=”treatment for diarrhea associated with Chemo” />

<meta itemprop=”category” content=”treatment for diarrhea associated with Chemotherapy” />

<meta itemprop=”category” content=”treatment for diarrhea associated with Adria and Taxoten” />

<meta itemprop=”audience” content=”women with ovarian cancer on chemotherapy” />

<meta itemprop=”audience” content=”doctors treating ovarian cancer” />

<meta itemprop=”description” content=” {FDA approved Indication Statement Here}” />

<meta itemprop=”description” content=” {FDA approved ISI Here}” />

<img itemprop=”image” src=”smilingpatient.jpg” alt=” “/>



It’s best to leave alt tags blank to avoid a Promotion Review Committee conflict about what people should see when they hover over an image in popular browsers. By using the item property for the image, you have already explained that the image is related to Drug X. An alt tag is optional but no longer absolutely necessary.


FAQ Page

Many drug websites break down the FDA-approved Indication or ISI in a question-and-answer format. Use the Schema for Question and Answer to mark up your FAQ. This will make the FAQ eligible for Direct Answers in Google. For many question-related searches, Google may try to show an exact answer to what someone is searching for at the top of the SERP.

  • name
  • text

  • name
  • text

Here’s what it looks like in the code:

<div itemscope itemtype=””>

<meta itemprop=”name” content=”dehydration”/>

<div itemprop=”text”>Does DrugX cause dehydration?</div>

<div itemprop=”suggestedAnswer acceptedAnswer” itemscope itemtype=””>

<meta itemprop=”text” content=”{ISI information on dehydration goes here}”/>

<span itemprop=”author” itemscope itemtype=””>

<meta itemprop=”name” content=”TansyObryant”/>

Note: You may want to add Person Schema for the name of the person who answered the question. This can help with tracking changes.

Avoiding Spam with Schema

Adding item properties in the <meta> isn’t considered “hidden content” by the search engines. You can render your markup useless, however, by adding “spammy” irrelevant item properties.

Drug X Indication states that it’s a treatment for “adult patients” and not “adult women.” It’s a treatment for ovarian cancer, so creating an audience item property “women” is not incorrect. But don’t create meta item properties for an audience that includes men and parents. While you might like for them to see your pages in the SERP, they are not your audience. Schema works only when it’s very specific.

Also, don’t use the wrong schema. There’s no “penalty” from the search engines for using the wrong schema, but it does render the markup useless. For example, a vitamin and dietary supplement label should use not

Title Tags and Descriptions: The Pressure Is Off!

When you’re finished marking up your pages, search engines will have a way to understand that Drug X has multiple relationships to keywords that aren’t included in the FDA-approved Indication — that describe items such as audience, alternative name and category — without having to show this information on the page.

This process alleviates the keyword relevancy pressure placed on meta tag titles and description tags. Your meta title tag should be simple and clear to the user. It shouldn’t be a keyword delimited list of phrases that you hoped would be ranked well. Construct your meta title tag as follows:

{drug name} + {page name}

You meta description should be straightforward as well. Construct your meta description as follows:

{drug name} + {indication}

Again, if you’d like to discuss SEO strategies, digital marketing or e-commerce in general, we’d love to chat. Send us an email at


*Note: Drug X, Adria and Taxoten, x-rofelamene are fictitious drugs created to illustrate SEO optimization for pharmaceutical websites.