Google Cracks Down On Addiction Treatment Ads To Help Consumers

By Bryan Le 09/18/17

Some popular terms for rehab searches will no longer feature ads in an effort to protect those in need.

a hand hovering over a screen on the Google homepage
Where there's money...

Google has become the go-to knowledge base for millions—including those looking for addiction help. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of people looking to target those in need with misleading ads to turn a quick buck.

As the United States’ addiction crisis continues to grow at an alarming rate, so has the demand for addiction treatment. Businesses have responded in kind, but a lack of oversight in the nascent industry has created a market for deceptive advertisers to make money by getting as many clicks as possible. The market is so valuable, some advertisers are reportedly willing to pay hundreds of dollars per click on Google.

The New York Times reports that in some cases, prosecutors and health advocates claim, the rehabs these ads lead to may be unfit to treat certain patients, and could pose a threat to some patients’ lives.

With this information in hand, Google made the decision to put some restrictions in place that would offer some assurance to those using the search engine to find help.

“We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision,” said Google spokeswoman Elisa Greene.

According to the Verge, Google reportedly began to purge rehab-related AdWords this week without any apparent warning. Currently, terms such as "alcohol treatment," "rehabs near me," "drug treatment," no longer feature ads, and more terms will likely follow. Google told the Verge in an email that "the restriction of ads in this space will be a gradual process." One well-known rehab told the Verge that it lost 40% of its Google ads in the sweep.

So how does advertising on Google work? The Verge breaks it down simply: "Advertisers tell Google how much they want to spend on search ads per month, which keywords they’d like those ads to run against, and then pay Google every time someone clicks on their ad."

Google is one of the most popular sites for addiction treatment research. The addiction treatment industry is an uneven one, host to an incredibly varied population of businesses and an assortment of treatment options. Between centers offering equine therapy, holistic treatments, support groups, and a dizzying array of pharmaceutical treatments, it’s hard for a new patient to know what they’re looking for.

While most treatments require the referral of a trained medical doctor, the addiction treatment industry has no such constraint.

Some shady advertisers snipe the name of a known legitimate treatment center and zero in on those who search for them, instead directing these people to a different facility.

A grand jury in Florida has been looking into exploitative addiction treatment centers in their state.

A witness told the grand jury that “online marketers use Google search terms to essentially hijack the good name and reputation of notable treatment providers only to route the caller to the highest bidder.”

Google does not often step in to restrict the ads—previous times include cracking down on payday lenders and putting an advanced verification process in place for locksmiths and plumbers—but felt this issue warranted some control. Health professionals praised Google for its decision.

“People don’t always know what good treatment is,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general in the Obama Administration and outspoken addiction treatment advocate. “I am glad Google took steps to prevent the spread of these false ads.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy previously spoke to The Fix about the addiction crisis in America.

"Many people are suspicious of methadone and buprenorphine,” he told The Fix. “They believe in abstinence and abstinence only, but science tells us very clearly that there are multiple paths to recovery."

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter