Exclusive: Google is cracking down on sketchy rehab ads

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.”

Comments

The greening of the internet. First fake news now fake ads

"Fake" advertisements have been around forever online.

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.

SNITCH

Although I applaud Google for cracking down on deceptive ads of any type, I have to say they are one of the most arbitrary companies for decision making, often refusing to listen to explanations. They can shut down legitimate sites and ads with no apologies to the owners.

Our business has a coupon set up in our google account for the public. The coupon simply stated "Print this coupon and bring in an item for service, and we will diagnose the problem at no charge. No minimum will be charged for estimate and diagnostics".

Simple, right? We had it there for a year, and then it expired so I remade it. The next thing I know, Google has deleted it and emailed us telling us they couldn’t understand it so it was removed.

I can only assume the people looking at the coupon were stupid. The coupon was a simple "free estimate" deal. No matter how many times I explained it to them, or how many times I remade the coupon, they kept removing it.

Finally, we told them to go fark themselves, and stopped using Google services.

Unfortunately, not we get calls from Google almost every day telling us our business listing needs to be updated, and no matter how much we try, we just can’t get them to stop calling us.

Needless to say, we won’t be using Google services again.

Oh hey, Google, while you’re at it, how about cracking down on those ads with fake "Download" and "Download Now" buttons? You know, the ads placed on download pages of websites? The ones that purposefully try and trick people into thinking that’s the button they need to press to download the software they are looking for.

I am a very experienced computer user and tech, and even I have to spend a few minutes (at times) wading through all these buttons trying to figure out which one is the correct one. Sometimes, the legitimate "button" is just an underlined link, which makes differentiating between all those fake buttons pretty hard to do at times.

I’m sure very single internet user can relate.

Nice work, Verge.

Full disclosure: I run global advertising on AdWords for a real rehab center.

First of all, credit to The Verge for revealing this long running and endemic scam, it has been hurting real rehabs everywhere and these brokers extort facilities to send them clients, with exorbitant fees. More brutal methods like click fraud to remove competitor ads are also used, along with attack on websites, online slandering and fake reviews.

But… addicts who need help use google as their primary tool to find rehabs. Google removed the ads for perfectly legitimate rehab facilities, and lo and behold, what’s left on the organic search page when all ads are removed ?. The exact scammers and fake comparison sites google tries to remove from their ads Way to go Google, an organic search result has much more credibility than an ad, now more people will fall into the trap.

I realize desperate measures were taken, but i believe Google is actually hurting people in need of professional and qualified help because of this, not helping them.

Google AdWords is known for rash decisions destroying entire industries, they are all powerful and really don’t care. Some mid level executive has a stress reaction, and there you go, problem made worse, countless businesses destroyed. Don’t be evil, right….

Dear Verge, please have a look at the organic search results now, the top ones are the very websites you highlight in your article about fraudulent rehab review sites.

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