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Industry input led to Google decision to halt ads for addiction treatment

September 15, 2017

Google has temporarily stopped selling certain types of advertisements related to addiction treatment. And it’s clear that the search engine giant made the move based on input from treatment industry insiders.

Aggressive online marketing is a key tactic for unethical providers and patient brokers, but until now, it seemed as if there was little to be done about it.

“We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision, in consultation with experts, to restrict ads in this category. As always, we constantly review our policies to protect our users and provide good experiences for consumers,” a spokesperson told Behavioral Healthcare Executive via email on Friday.

Specifically, the restriction is on what’s known as pay-per-click advertising with AdWords, which has dynamic pricing in the addiction treatment market as high as $90 per click in some rare instances, according to sources. However, the ad restriction is not for all addiction treatment ads, and it’s not necessarily a permanent policy.

“It’s pretty fluid right now, and [Google is] assessing the terms they think are going to be the most important ones to remove,” says Josh Weum, director of paid search media for Dreamscape Marketing, who just a few weeks ago was a Google employee working in the space.

Weum tells Behavioral Healthcare Executive that the search terms “rehab center,” “rehab facility” and “Florida rehab” appeared to be the initial targets as of Thursday evening, but that could change as more legwork is done. The important takeaway is that Google is systematically removing the terms that are being abused by advertisers, he says.

Organic search results will still display as they normally would.

Google has made large-scale efforts to police misleading information and links that funnel consumers to questionable operations such as financial scams, prostitution and human trafficking. In fact, payday loan schemes have recently been shut out of AdWords entirely.

Nonetheless, industry leaders are applauding Google for acknowledging the issue and trying to work collaboratively on a solution.

Marvin Ventrell, executive director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, says the association is gratified that Google listened to the outcry from the ethical treatment providers.

“It is a critical piece in the ongoing effort to separate high quality, values-based providers from unscrupulous profiteers and protect the public,” Ventrell says. “We hope this move is permanent and that additional measures will be taken. Deceptive practices run deep, and there is more work to be done here.”

The data emerges

Greg Williams, co-founder of Facing Addiction, a not-for-profit awareness and advocacy group, became deeply involved in the push to limit the AdWord sales somewhat coincidentally while working separately with Google on an advocacy project last year. Facing Addiction was trying to deliver its message on digital channels but found that—even with a grant from Google itself—Facing Addiction couldn’t afford to buy a preferred spot in the search engine filters.

Williams says his team found that four out of the five top-selling and most costly AdWords in the healthcare space—not just in the addiction specialty, but in the entire healthcare industry—are keywords related to addiction treatment. His not-for-profit was essentially priced out of the market.

At the same time, Florida officials had started making arrests of shady treatment operators, some of which pled guilty to illegal patient brokering and other crimes. Facing Addiction sent a memo to Google with details linking some pay-per-click buyers to the illegal activities.

“Now we could prove to Google that they had been selling AdWords to folks who had been arrested,” Williams says. “It was not Google’s fault. It just goes to show how hard this industry is to navigate. We were able to say, ‘This guy who went to jail? You sold him $80-grand worth of AdWords.’”

He says the organization made a point to Google that it was becoming impossible to distinguish legitimate treatment providers from profiteers online and the search engine practices could potentially be leading to preventable deaths.

“They really took that to heart,” Williams says.

Follow the money

No doubt Google makes a not-insignificant amount of revenue off the AdWords. Williams compares the decision to the way that pharmacy retailer CVS decided to stop selling tobacco products. In a strategy to become more of a health-oriented company, CVS took the financial hit on the lost tobacco sales.

“We hope Google owns this,” Williams says. “They should. They are potentially saving millions of lives.”

What’s most challenging is that the industry itself is hard pressed to find and quash the profiteers and criminals. Google will most likely create an improved checks-and-balances system to vet the advertisers for the future. For example, if an ad claims a treatment center has a swimming pool or depicts a pool, the information must be true and not misleading, Weum says.

 “Compliance with Google is paramount,” he says.

Such digital policing could be a game changer for online searches, which is the primary way potential patients find addiction treatment.

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