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Search Results Irk Addiction Treatment Marketers, but Google is Adjusting

April 16, 2021

A key change in the way Google displays search results for “addiction treatment” and related terms that was implemented last year has rankled many within the field. Some voiced their concerns, and it appears Google, to some degree, is listening.

Last summer, the search engine giant began placing a box with SAMHSA’s National Helpline atop results for searches related to addiction treatment. Last month, John McGhee, managing partner for the addiction treatment-focused digital marketing firm Webconsuls penned a piece for the NAATP website listing several concerns with SAMHSA’s directory of providers and methods for selecting treatment options to present to individuals who reach out for help.

McGhee also noted that inserting the large Helpline box pushed down organic and paid search results. The latter was particularly irksome, McGhee wrote, because providers had been required to invest in LegitScript certification—a costly and labor-intensive process—to appear in paid search results, and were now being squeezed out of prime screen real estate. Taking away the top of the search results page was a blow to treatment centers that have been trying to compete fairly, he wrote.

Contacted by BHE this week, McGhee says colleagues across the industry expressed similar frustrations both before and after his piece on the NAATP site was published.

“The main gripes are that the banner contributes to people getting less appropriate care and that it diminishes the value of LegitScript certification,” McGhee tells BHE. “Google essentially required certification for access to the above-the-fold real estate on the search results page, then took it away after everyone spent the time and money to achieve the certification. Treatment centers feel a little betrayed by that.”

For its part, Google appears to be responding. In an email to BHE, a company spokesperson says beyond adding the SAMHSA Helpline box, Google has “also refined our ranking systems to help improve the visibility of authoritative information, including national hotlines, for relevant queries, with the aim of connecting vulnerable people in unsafe situations to reliable and free support as quickly as possible.”

McGhee says that since he last spoke with a Google employee within the company’s knowledge department six months ago, he has observed some changes, including that the SAMHSA Helpline box appears atop the search results for fewer terms and that location-based searches now rarely trigger the Helpline box.

“It’s promising that they’ve adjusted that, as it indicates they do realize a broad answer to a detailed question isn’t the best user experience,” McGhee says.

The Google spokesperson says the company works with “recognized crisis services and authoritative resources across the web and medical professionals” with the goal of delivering “high quality and locally relevant information [to users] when they need it most.”

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