Google Clinical Trial Advertising: Getting the Most Out of Google Ads for Recruitment


There are many ways to advertise a clinical trial, from print media to radio and television ads. But in recent years, online advertising has become the frontrunner, with search engines and social media taking the largest market share.[1] At the top of the list is Google’s paid advertising service: Google Ads.[2]

With over 270 million unique active users in the US alone, Google Ads provides an expansive marketing platform that can be used effectively for clinical trial recruitment. Trial sponsors, CROs, researchers, medical advertisers, and recruitment specialists can run specialized recruitment ads that Google will show to users who are thought to be most likely to enroll, effectively bringing participants to the trial. This can reduce overall marketing costs as well as prevent delays in recruitment that have the potential to derail a clinical trial.

However, an essential prerequisite to a successful recruitment campaign on Google is having an understanding of the Google clinical trial advertising guidelines, a set of regulations stipulating what can and cannot be included in healthcare ads. The Google ad policy must be adhered to in order for your recruitment ads to be approved. In this article, we will outline these rules and suggest some effective strategies to ensure your clinical trial recruitment campaign draws maximum benefit from Google Ads.

Google Ad policy: Healthcare ads and clinical trial advertising

The Google Ad policy outlines the types of medical ads that are allowed on the platform, with specific regulations covering clinical trial recruitment ads, healthcare ads, birth control ads, abortion-related ads, and pharmaceutical advertising.[3] Each ad category is bound by local laws and standards, expressly limiting the countries wherein these ads can be run.

For clinical trial recruitment purposes, Google currently only allows clinical trial advertising in the following 22 countries:

  • Australia
  • Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand
  • Belgium
  • Ireland
  • Netherlands
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • Israel
  • New Zealand
  • United States
  • China
  • Italy
  • Philippines
  • Vietnam
  • France
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • Germany
  • Korea
  • Taiwan

Furthermore, the Google clinical trial advertising policy includes content controls on the ad copy in the recruitment ad as well as the destination, i.e., the landing page where users end up after clicking on your ad. These Google restrictions are listed below:

  • The ad and landing page cannot directly promote any kind of prescription drug.
  • The ad and landing page cannot display any misleading information about the drug or therapy, including its potential effects and adverse reactions.
  • The ad and landing page cannot imply that the drug or therapy being tested is safe in any way.
  • The landing page must comply with all local laws and regulations.

In the case of violation of any one of these rules, Google takes serious action by suspending Google Ads accounts permanently. However, clinical trial ads can work within these restrictions and still be highly effective, as there are many clever ways to catch the interest of a potential participant and explain the trial without violating any part of the Google Ad policy. Clinical trial recruitment ads can focus on the fact that volunteers are needed to find out more and attempt to help those with a given condition, without promoting a drug or promising specific benefits. For example, sponsors of Parkinson’s research successfully increased accrual while reducing cost per participant through online ads using ad copy that only named the condition and the nature of the trial.[4]

How do you advertise a clinical trial on Google?

Before running your Google clinical trial advertising campaign, there are a few requirements to be aware of. First, you need a verified Google Ads account to run ads on the platform.[5] While the online form doesn’t take long to fill out, receiving approval may take some time. It is a good idea to have a verified account ready before you begin planning your campaign in too much detail.

Second, understand that each ad you plan to run must be IRB approved. If you plan to use any restricted medical terms (see “Restricted drug terms”), you will also need additional Google certification.[3] Both of these processes take time and may lead to delays, so they should be taken into account when planning a campaign timeline and designing ad content. More details on these two considerations follow.

Finally, Google Ads is not officially HIPAA compliant, as the user data gathered through these ads is considered patient health information (PHI), which is not covered in Google's privacy policy. However, Google is liable for any breach of PHI, which is why they have strict approval criteria for healthcare ads.

Obtaining IRB approval

All marketing content for a Google clinical trial advertising campaign must be approved by an IRB and adhere to FDA guidelines.[6] Therefore, recruitment ads cannot:

  • Be coercive or leading in any way;
  • Imply that a drug, treatment, therapy, or medical device is safe, effective, or better than another;
  • Emphasize payment for participation, although it can be mentioned;
  • Advertise free drugs or medical care; or
  • Market the trial as a new drug or new treatment if it is not yet FDA-approved

A well-prepared IRB approval package for your Google clinical trial advertising campaign should have multiple versions of your ads and content, including several generic responses to possible user questions. Having a whole set of IRB-approved content will ensure you can properly test your ads as they go live and modify them based on their performance, without worrying about rejections or delays. It also sets you up for responding to user questions quickly.

Applying for a “healthcare services and products certification”

You will need to obtain a “healthcare products and services certification” if you plan to run a Google clinical trial advertising campaign that makes use of prescription drug terms or over-the-counter medicine names in the ad copy or landing pages.

This certification verifies that you represent a legitimate healthcare or medical organization that can demonstrate adherence to all country-specific regulations. The application form is available online and can be filled out by anyone affiliated with your organization, from researchers to third-party ad agencies.[7] The application requires information such as the Google Ads account information, website URL(s), and local accreditations. Once certified, you will be permitted to use the restricted drug terms on your ads and landing pages.

Designing Google clinical trial advertising campaigns

Now that we’ve covered the conceptual basis of clinical trial advertising on Google and the relevant regulations in the Google Ad policy, we will go into further detail about ad types and targeting methods so you can get the most out of Google Ads for your clinical trial recruitment advertising campaign.

Google Search Ads vs. Google Display Ads

In general, the two main types of Google advertising campaigns that are relevant to clinical trials are Google Search Campaigns and Google Display Campaigns, which differ in several aspects. The ad type that is most suitable for your recruitment ad campaign will depend on specific characteristics of your trial, including its budget, timeline, and enrollment targets.

Google Search Campaigns

Search ads are text-based ads which get displayed at the top of the Google search engine result page (SERP) after a user searches for a keyword that is associated with your campaign (you will specify the relevant keywords during the setup of your campaign). When a user performs a search, the ads that are eligible to appear go through Google’s “ad auction,” which determines which ads are displayed and in which order.[8] The ranking is based on several factors, including the ad’s relevant keywords, the quality of your ad, and your bid.[9] This multifaceted ranking system means that even if your competition bids more for their ads than you, your ad may still appear at a higher position if it has the right keywords and well-designed copy.

Google Search ads are a type of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. As the advertiser, if your ad wins in the auction and is shown on the SERP for a given keyword, you will still only pay if your ad is clicked. The actual price you pay may differ from your “max bid,” with the most important factor in the final price being the “quality score” of your ad (the higher the quality score, the lower your price per click will be). This means that well-designed ads can be more cost-effective while still showing up at the top of the Google search results page. Check out the excellent infographic in this article to better understand this system.[10]

Google Display Campaigns

Display ads are multimedia ads that can appear anywhere across the Google Display Network (GDN), which is a collection of more than two million sites, including social media platforms.[11] The Google Display Network allows you to further target ads based on specific contexts, to particular audiences, or in particular locations. These ads are displayed in the following formats:

  • News feed ads embedded in social media feeds
  • Sidebar ads displayed along the sides of a website
  • Banner ads displayed at the top or bottom of a website
  • Text-based email ads that expand to an image ad when clicked on

The key difference between these two types of ads is how they target people. Search ads are pull ads because they pull in those actively searching for a product or service (through specific keywords). Therefore, search ads have a higher conversion rate but are more expensive.

On the other hand, display ads are a type of push ad. They are shown to users who are not actively looking for the advertised services or products (but some of whom are hopefully interested regardless). While they have a lower conversion rate, they also cost a fraction of the price of a search ad.

Which ad type is best for your Google clinical trial advertising campaign depends on your recruitment goals. Search ads may be the best option if you are short on time, or have specific, relevant and perhaps uncommon keywords – meaning you will have less competition in the ad auction and more-refined targeting of your well-defined target population. On the other hand, display ads may be more cost-effective if you have a longer timeframe for recruitment or need to reach a wider demographic (wherein you may not have highly-targeted keywords).

Personalized advertising: Permitted display targeting methods

Personalized advertising refers to the use of online user data to preferentially show (target) ads to those who are more likely to click on the ad. While it is a powerful tool, it is also subject to misuse and has raised concerns over user privacy. In order to help respect and protect the privacy of its users, Google Ads bans ads directly targeting or alluding to users based on sensitive interest categories, which include health conditions (covered under ‘personal hardships’), amongst other topics.[12]

Since health conditions fall under sensitive interest, clinical trial recruitment ads cannot make use of all the personalized advertising options. However, recruitment ads can still make use of other targeting methods, namely keyword, placement, and topic targeting, which are described below:

  • Keyword: Ads are shown on pages and websites that contain keywords from a predefined list
  • Placement: Ads are displayed on a list of specific, predefined pages or websites
  • Topics: Ads are displayed on pages and websites about specific topics

5 Practical tips for successful Google clinical trial advertising

Despite the targeted ad restrictions and specific regulations for healthcare ads, running a successful recruitment campaign on Google is just a matter of thorough planning and intentional design. Here are five practical tips to help you get started on designing your recruitment advertising campaign:

1. Consider a test campaign

Before launching a full-scale Google clinical trial advertising campaign, consider running a test campaign with a limited scope and shorter timeline. By designing your test campaign to be as similar as possible to your actual campaign, you can ensure it will be approved by Google and also obtain preliminary insights. These preliminary results can help you determine how to take your ad campaign forward. If the test run indicates solid performance, you can ramp up and expand, running more ads and deploying more of your budget. However, if an ad isn’t performing as expected, or if it gets rejected, you will be able to make adjustments or drop the specific ad, without having wasted too large a portion of your recruitment budget.

2. Be clear, concise, and transparent with your call-to-action

Clear and concise language is vitally important for your ads as well as your landing pages. Ads tend to be glanced over rapidly, so it is good practice to focus on transparent communication that provides relevant information quickly and clearly. You want to engage eligible users by providing them with enough information to understand whether the study is right for them, without sounding too much like a sales pitch. This is also important for making it clear to users who aren’t eligible that the study is not appropriate for them; filtering through ineligible participants eats up time and budget.

Avoid using too much medical jargon, and integrate terms that specifically pique your target audience’s interests. Include clear and understandable calls-to-action (CTA) that encourage users to click through to landing pages, and from there to the enrollment stage. Consider using a sign-up form on your landing page that asks for the user’s email address, which will create a database of interested individuals who can be contacted for future trials, or so you can follow-up if they don’t move through the recruitment funnel themselves.

3. Research your keywords

Selecting and using the right keywords in your ad copy is essential for ranking on the Google SERP and grabbing the attention of the right prospects, so it is worth doing prior research to identify relevant, specific, and high-performing keywords. Google offers three types of keyword matching: exact, phrase, and broad.[13] Google clinical trial advertising campaigns benefit the most from exact- and phrase-match keywords, such as:

  • Clinical studies in [city]
  • [Condition] trial in [city]
  • Clinical research for [condition]

Tools like Google’s Keyword Planner can show you a range of potential keywords and help you narrow-down and identify those that are most suitable for your recruitment ads.[14]

4. Monitor the ad campaign and make changes as necessary

Before launching your campaign, determine your landing page’s baseline metrics, such as website traffic and sign-ups. Then, once your recruitment ad campaign has been launched, monitor the conversion rate of the ads and how web traffic to the landing page changes. With this information, you can increase the visibility of the ads with better conversion rates and drop others that aren’t performing as well. You can even link Google Analytics to your Google Ads account for more insights into ad performance.

Monitoring your ads will also give you hints about the effectiveness of the keywords used in your ad copy. For example, suppose that many people are clicking-through to your landing page but are not enrolling. This high “bounce rate” may indicate that your ad is reaching an audience interested in researching the medical condition rather than planning to participate in clinical research about it. Use the performance statistics as feedback to adjust your ad and even the landing page. Try different copy or imagery from amongst your pre-approved set of content. One of the main benefits of advertising online is the dynamic nature of the campaigns; making adjustments on-the-go is one of the best ways to reach and maintain the accrual rates you’ve set as objectives.

5. Consider working with a recruitment agency or ad agency

Another potential solution to navigating the complexities of online clinical trial advertising, especially if you don’t have a dedicated marketing team or this is your first time running a Google clinical trial advertising campaign, is to work with a recruitment agency or clinical research advertising agency. With their experience in this area, they will free you of a lot of the preparatory and guesswork and help you design strategic ads that get approved quickly and attract the right participant base. This option could be especially attractive if you are working with a particularly tight recruitment timeline.

You could even consider partnering with multiple agencies, for example one to launch your Google advertisement campaign and another to oversee offline recruitment methods. If you decide to go this route, make sure to do your research and find a partner with solid expertise in clinical trial advertising – experience in your specific trial type/phase/medical area is even better, as recruitment can be a highly specialized skill. Finally, clarify budget considerations before beginning so you don’t end up with any surprises.


Creating a Google clinical trial advertising campaign is relatively straightforward and can be an effective option for online recruitment efforts. However, designing an effective campaign requires some prerequisite knowledge, thorough planning, and attention to details that will help the ads reach high-intent, eligible participants. Ensure you understand the Google Ad policy clearly and obtain IRB approval for a varied set of content so your campaign can be approved quickly and launched and modified smoothly.

Be patient and give your ads sufficient time to reach their intended audience, but don’t be afraid to make changes if performance statistics and feedback indicate that the campaign is not achieving its intended accrual rates. With time you will gain insights and expertise that will help you improve both your current and future ad campaigns, as well as build a user network and get better at engaging potential participants.

Another complement to your recruitment strategy could be joining Power’s patient recruitment marketplace. Power matches you directly to patients who are actively looking for clinical trials - try it out, it takes just 5 minutes to set up (no IT, no onboarding needed).