Around the country today, marketers in the $35 billion addiction treatment industry woke up to an unpleasant surprise: Many of their Google search ads were gone. Overnight, the search giant has stopped selling ads against a huge number of rehab-related search terms, including “rehab near me,” “alcohol treatment,” and thousands of others. Search ads on some of those keywords would previously have netted Google hundreds of dollars per click.
“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,” Google told The Verge in a statement. “As always, we constantly review our policies to protect our users and provide good experiences for consumers.”
Google is the biggest source of patients for most treatment centers. 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.
While many treatment centers market themselves ethically, there are also significant numbers of bad actors using deceptive and even illegal tactics to get “heads in beds.” Last week, The Verge published a story uncovering how marketers use the internet to hook desperate addicts and their families, from hijacking the Google business listings of other treatment centers to deceiving addicts about where a treatment center is located.
The AdWords purge appears to have begun suddenly and without warning, even for legitimate rehabs. Advanced Recovery Systems, which owns seven treatment centers around the country, most under the name The Recovery Village, spends “multi-millions a year” on Google ads, according to marketing director George Fischer. They had no warning before losing 40% of their ads — and there’s been no real communication from the company since.
“Our Google reps did say the decision came from the higher ups, and that’s literally all they’ve said,” Fischer told me. “When you’re paying millions of dollars a year, you’d want slightly better customer service.”
The exact keywords affected by the change still seem to be in flux. Yesterday, for instance, I noticed Googling “rehab near me” didn’t load any AdWords, but “rehabs near me” did. An hour after I reached out to Google’s spokespeople, “rehabs near me” no longer showed ads. Fischer says the list of blocked keywords continues to grow.
“The restriction of ads in this space will be a gradual process. It began this week,” Google explained by email.
While getting rid of rehab-related AdWords shuts the door on some scams, it may also direct more people to Google Maps business listings, which have serious problems unaffected by changes to AdWords. As ads have disappeared from the tops of rehab-related searches, business listings have moved to the top. But many rehab business listings are just plain spam, existing only to put a lead generation number in front of more eyes.
Business listings are also plagued by hijackers, who have often used the “suggest an edit” feature on legitimate Google Maps listings to add their own 800-numbers, siphoning off callers looking for help. “If you’re a facility and you don’t check your map on a regular basis, you will be hijacked,” said Alan Johnson, chief assistant state attorney of Florida.
Google is making changes to combat this listing theft. In the past, business owners were only notified of the changes if they logged into Google’s business interface; according to Google, over the last few months, they’ve been rolling out notifications that land in email inboxes.
Fischer hopes Google will take on a more active role vetting treatment centers, forcing them to show they’re licensed and accredited before selling them ads or listing them on Google Maps. “People trust that when they’re searching things, what Google is showing them is legitimate,” he told me. “If they had a certification program in place, that would be a big step forward.”