The opioid addiction epidemic in America, which killed more than 53,000 people in 2016, has fueled the drug treatment industry's growth, with rehabs and drug treatment facilities popping up all over the country. But the $35 billion treatment industry is plagued with untrustworthy facilities that have learned how to game Google search results. Many drug treatment centers have mastered SEO practices and buy ad words on Google to make sure their business appears first when an addict, or desperate family member, types "drug treatment center" or "rehab" into the search bar, doctors and public health experts say.
According to the New York Times, Google formally acknowledged how poorly-run rehabs buying ads on Google are hurting patients in a time of need. In response, Google temporarily restricted ads that target people who search for drug treatment centers on its search engine. Google says it might start selling ads to treatment centers again once it figures out a way to block misleading ads from untrustworthy companies.
"We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision," Elisa Greene, Google spokeswoman, told the Times.
Greg Williams, co-founder of nonprofit group Facing Addiction, tells the Times that many of these untrustworthy drug treatment centers attract most of their patients through aggressive online ad-word buying and online marketing campaigns. Williams and his nonprofit discovered that addiction treatment companies were creating ad-buying bidding wars on Google, making the prices balloon for an ad that appears as the top search result.
Williams' research found that the treatment centers that were buying up the majority of the ad words related to addiction and drug treatment were organizations that have been accused of crimes--from sexual assault of patients to insurance fraud. Research and court cases show that many of the worst offenders are located in Florida. Last December, the Times reports, a Florida grand jury released a damning report that documented how poorly run facilities use online marketing tricks to target patients searching for treatment centers close to their homes but they would be served ads that push sketchy treatment centers in other states.
The field of addiction treatment is a "wild west," says Dr. Michael Frost, a state licensed addiction specialist in Pennsylvania. Frost warns that using Google to find drug treatment facilities can be dangerous. He says if a rehab has good reviews on Google it doesn't always mean it's actually a trustworthy facility.
"It just means the facility is good at SEO and Google search results," says Frost.
Frost suggests that people with substance abuse disorder go to their primary care doctor and talk with their insurance provider to find a trustworthy treatment center.
Dr. Thomas McLellan, who is the former Science Adviser and Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama, warns that only one-third of America's 13,000 addiction treatment facilities are staffed by doctors and the majority of rehabs do not follow FDA-approved treatment protocols. McLellan says the industry is woefully unregulated and needs to change.