The pharmaceutical e-commerce space has been developing and maturing for years, but it experienced massive pandemic-induced growth. And the e-pharmacy market is expected to be worth USD 136,160.27 million by 2026.
Its significant growth owes to a rise in the number of government initiatives supporting the adoption of online purchase of medicines during the pandemic and new technologies streamlining the process.
But while the legitimate e-pharmacy industry has the potential to widen access to life-changing medicines, cut administration costs, increase speed and lead to better health outcomes, its growth is mirrored by a shadow market of unverified and unsafe online pharmacy businesses.
A new study by Origin has analysed nearly 10,000 ‘fake’ online pharmacies, revealing their dominance in Google’s search results and the risks to the public.
Using the Screaming Frog SEO Spider and Ahref’s API tool, our data analysts studied 9,987 sites from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s ‘not recommended list’ of e-pharmacies – sites that are unverified and therefore potentially unsafe.
The ‘fake’ e-pharmacies studied received an estimated 1,716,667 visits globally every month and rank on the first page of Google for 32,436 different medical and health-related search terms.
Appearing on the first page of Google is usually a signal that a website can be trusted. But the study shows unverified e-pharmacies selling potentially dangerous pharmaceutical products are taking over search engine results and undermining the growth of the legitimate e-pharmacy industry.
What’s more, Origin found these ‘fake’ pharmacies had over half a million referring domains – the number of other websites linking directly to them. This means people can unsuspectingly find themselves going from a trusted website to a potentially dangerous one with just a click.
Of the external websites linking to these unverified e-pharmacies, 100,000 came from government sites and nearly 900,000 from education websites such as ‘.edu’ and ‘.ac.uk’ which are often highly trusted by both the general public and Google itself.
This is particularly concerning given that having a high number of external links back to a website can help it rank better in the Google search results, making it seem more trustworthy to the ordinary person and more likely to be featured on page one.
Buying from an unregistered online pharmacy can be dangerous for several reasons. Medicines may have too much, too little or none of an active ingredient, and their expiration dates may have been tampered with, altering their effectiveness. They could also contain harmful or toxic substances, leading to life-threatening side effects in some cases.
Only last year, 100,000 fake online pharmacies were shut down as part of Interpol’s ongoing Pangea operation to tackle counterfeit medicines. As part of this crackdown, fake medicines worth more than £9 million were seized from the UK market alone.
Since the operation’s launch in 2008, the most seized items have been fake erectile dysfunction medicines, anti-depressants, anabolic steroids and drug treatments for diabetes and cancer.
Other dangers for consumers include being financial loss, from never receiving the item(s) they paid for online or giving over sensitive payment information that’s then used or sold on by criminals.
With this growing threat, the public must understand the red flags when it comes to ordering prescription medicine, or in fact any health product, online and the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry has a responsibility to educate, working alongside regulatory bodies and governments.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy is a non-profit organisation that works to promote public health in the USA. They host a website: https://safe.pharmacy/not-recommended-sites/ which lists fraudulent pharmacy sites that sell unverified prescription medication worldwide. The list contains 9,986 sites.
The study scraped the full list of unverified pharmacy sites using a tool called the Screaming Frog SEO Spider, in combination with digital marketing tool Ahrefs’ API, to gather information on these sites.
Ahref’s database contains information on how well sites rank in Google. The tool estimates monthly traffic off the average number of users searching for relevant keywords, and a site’s position in the search results for those keywords.
Ahrefs also tracks which sites link out to other sites, which is one of the main ways Google finds sites and assesses their ‘authority’.