Google Sets Limits on Addiction Treatment Ads

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Finally, Limits on Addiction Treatment Ads

As drug addiction soars in the United States, a booming business of rehab centers has sprung up to treat the problem. And when drug addicts and their families search for help, they often turn to Google.

But prosecutors and health advocates have warned that many online searches are leading addicts to click on ads for rehab centers that are unfit to help them or, in some cases, endangering their lives.

This week, Google acknowledged the problem — and started restricting ads that come up when someone searches for addiction treatment on its site. “We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision,” Google spokeswoman Elisa Greene said in a statement on Thursday.

Google has taken similar steps to restrict advertisements only a few times before. Last year it limited ads for payday lenders, and in the past it created a verification system for locksmiths to prevent fraud.

In this case, the restrictions will limit a popular marketing tool in the $35 billion addiction treatment business, affecting thousands of small-time operators.

“This is a bold move by one of the world’s biggest companies, saying people’s lives are more important than profit,” said Greg Williams, co-founder of Facing Addiction, a nonprofit group that is an advocate for people struggling with addiction.

Many rehab centers, a large number of which are clustered in warm climates like Florida, Arizona and California, rely on Google searches to attract patients from across the country. Their strategy often included buying an ad that would come up when someone searched for phrases like “drug rehab” or “alcohol treatment centers.”

As of this week, Google has stopped selling ads related to those searches, although it may lift the restriction if it can find a way to weed out misleading advertisements.

Search ads for addiction treatment are lucrative. Treatment providers, in some cases, have been willing to pay $70 per ad click, according to an analysis that Mr. Williams’ group conducted and presented to Google executives.

But the payoff for those clicks can be significant. Addicts who sign up for 30 days of residential treatment can bring in tens of thousands of dollars from private insurance.

The crucial, if unwitting, role that Google has played in the treatment industry exposes the deep flaws in how drug addicts are cared for in America. Despite the rapid growth in the number of addiction cases — and the Trump Administration’s declaration that the opioid crisis is a national emergency — the treatment industry remains a hodgepodge of upstart businesses, with only a few well-known providers.

What constitutes treatment is also all over the map, from yoga and equine therapy to daily doses of medication. And unlike other serious illnesses, like cancer or heart disease, where a physician typically refers the patient for treatment, many addicts and their families look for help on the internet.

That has made Google one of the largest referral sources for treating a disease that affects millions of Americans. And the companies willing to the pay the most for ads are the one that addicts are most likely to see on their search.

But ad-driven searches, according to advocates and law enforcement officials, have not always led patients to the best care. In some cases, they have found that patients are being duped, a phenomenon Google on Thursday acknowledged.

Last December, a Florida grand jury released a report detailing abuses in the state’s addiction treatment industry, which is centered around Palm Beach County. Among the findings, the grand jury zeroed on the problems with how some of the shoddy programs were being marketed online.

One witness, according to the grand jury report, described how “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.”

Another common trap: Addicts search Google for a rehab program close to their home, but they will click on an ad for a referral service pitching treatment in another state. The referral service then collects a fee, if they signed up.

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This article was originally published in the NYTimes.com on September 14, 2017.