Exclusive: Google is cracking down on sketchy rehab ads
Following a Verge report about rehabs gaming Google, the company begun pulling AdWords
This past week, marketers in the $35 billion addiction rehab industry are facing unpleasant surprises. No more Google ads. The search engine giant suddenly stopped selling ads against the huge number of rehab-related search terms, including “drug rehab near me,” “alcohol addiction treatment,” and many others. Search ads on some of those keywords would previously have netted Google hundreds of dollars per click.
Google began limiting ads on search results pages for drug and alcohol rehab center enquiries.
The Verge recently reported that rehabilitation centers like those operated by Advanced Recovery Systems suddenly saw ads disappear from roughly 40 percent of queries they were targeting.
Searches like “heroin detox,” “drug rehab,” and “opioid treatment center” are examples of the queries that yield results without ads. Organic local listings replaced where text ads lived.
As of right now, ads still appear on rehab-related searches such as “addiction help” and “painkiller detox.” That is likely to change as this update continues to roll out.
This leaves legitimate treatment centers like Gateway Rehab in a weird limbo now that the potential for visibility and traffic from Google search ads will only be limited further. The change only impacts ads; organic results remain unaffected other than they now appear higher on pages with disabled ads.
Why Is This Happening?
As opioid addiction in the US reaches epidemic proportions, the demand for treatment programs has surged. Combine lack of regulation and treatment standards with massive demand and new insurance mandates, and you have an environment ripe for misuse.
A Google spokesperson said, “We found [several] misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision, in consultation with experts, to restrict ads in this category. As always, we constantly review our policies to protect our users and provide good experiences for consumers.”
Google has been consulting with a non-profit resource for people seeking treatment called Facing Addiction. In an email, co-founder, Jim Hood said, “We have been having discussions with Google for the past few months. As you can imagine, this is an extraordinarily complicated conversation, with many moving parts.”
F.A. pulled a comprehensive analysis of how much money addiction rehab centers and lead generating companies in the field pay to advertise their services and facilities in Google search results. Looking at the current economics of treatment care, the cost of a lead is irrelevant because only a small percent of paying patients covers the marketing costs. Or in other words, patient care becomes a secondary concern.
Unfortunately for Google, this isn’t their first rodeo. The search engine giant has changed the way it handles ads a few times to address other abuse.
In 2011, the DOJ levied a $500 million fine on Google for having allowed Canadian pharmacies target US consumers with search ads, and in July 2016, Google instituted a ban on payday and high-interest loan advertisers.
Well unlike pharmacy and payday loan scenarios where ads still appear on related queries, Google disabled advertising on certain addiction rehab-related search results altogether until they can figure their stuff out.
The goal is to ensure that consumers turning to Google for search only see reputable resources, but it’s not going to be an overnight fix. It’s going to be a complicated task that will take serious time and effort. It’s also putting good actors that rely on Google as a top lead source in a top and unpredictable spot. Media buyers are likely to see a continuing drop-off of fluctuation in ad impressions as Google works this one out. Will these ads return? We don’t know, but an alternative solution is likely around the corner.