Google’s Crack Down on Treatment Center False Advertising

Google computer screen

Google it. If a person is looking for anything these days, it’s common to hear ‘Google it.’ We turn to the Internet to search for just about all our needs, and the same can be said for addiction treatment.

With drug addiction soaring in the United States, many facilities are being established to help stop the crisis [1]. To help with marketing, many turn to Google to promote their services through Google ads.

Face the Music

Google recently acknowledged that it faced a moral issue with online searches and connections to addiction treatment centers [1]. When an addict or family member is searching online for treatment, various advertisements for facilities pop up.

When the user clicks on an ad, they are redirected to either a center that is what it says what it is or to one that is not legal and unable to treat the person appropriately. There is no regulatory standard for the advertisements that say they are treatment centers on Google’s website.

Sunspire Health

Limiting Triggers

In response to Googles’ acknowledgment of this issue, the company began to restrict the ads that appear on their site when someone searches for treatment facilities, and Google recently limited the type of search words that will trigger advertisements to popup.

This change in strategy is a game-changer for many treatment facilities who rely on the Internet to gain fee-for-service patients, many who often stay for 30 days of treatment or more. One referral can mean tens of thousands of dollars from private insurance for treating just one person, for addiction treatment facilities within the United States.

Seeing Isn’t Always Believing

With addiction, users and their family members may not know where or who to turn to for help, and often rely on the Internet for advice on what constitutes addiction and treatment.

Google SEO

This definition can vary when you do an Internet search. Many companies are willing to pay Internet companies, such as Google, for ads to make their treatment facility the first visible company when keywords are typed into the search bar.

Families and vulnerable individuals may see these companies that may not be the most ethical or legal, but believe they are because they are listed first.

Unfortunately, other ads are scamming people who are searching for treatment centers through Google by rerouting their call to another center. They may be misrepresenting themselves or stealing a reputable center’s name to steal someone’s identity or money.

Other ads that say they are local will instead be located in another state and collect a fee for gaining a ‘click’ from the search user, or obtain a small profit if the person signs up for treatment.

Google has been working to target these false ads through consulting with experts in the addiction field, and the marketing arena, to help stop this crisis and help addicts receive proper assistance [2].

In response to AdWords, Google states that they have run assessments, and sites with misleading experiences can result in denial of Google ads entirely, within the U.S. [3].

By using Google AdWords, some companies claiming to be treatment centers will use client information through Google to find other clients. Some companies have changed their competitors’ phone numbers by using fake ads to misdirect potential clients.

Even after the ban at Google was in place, when searching for ‘addiction treatment’ or other keywords, a number of fraudulent facilities were still being advertised.

Illegal In Some Areas

Currently, the U.S. government requires many insurance companies to cover substance abuse treatment, which can cost several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the treatment.

Woman using Google on her phone

National and State laws make selling access to patient information illegal, stating that money should not take priority over quality patient care [3]. The practice of stealing or misdirecting referrals and electronically brokering patients is now illegal in many U.S. states.

Across the Pond

This practice of brokering, however, has now moved across the pond to London and these brokers are now known as referral agents. Agents get a kickback, as much as $400 (equivalent to U.S. dollars) from a single hit on an advertised link according to the London Sunday Times [4].

These agents can receive up to tens of thousands of dollars per month in commissions for using hundreds of websites to advertise call lines for addiction sufferers. Google removed all advertisements concerning addictions from all of its United Kingdom platforms after this news went public in January 2018 [4].

Many prominent businesses in addiction treatment report meeting with Google representatives to ensure that their marketing ads are kept at the top of Internet pages to entice patients.

Young woman looking at Google on her phoneFee-for-service facilities also report paying top-dollar for this service which makes it hard for smaller run agencies, which may provide quality service to compete.

In response to the London news, a Google spokesperson reported that the company has worked with healthcare providers at various levels to connect those individuals who need help for both mental and physical issues [4].

Google went on to say that they feel addiction and substance abuse is a growing ‘crisis’ and that ‘deceptive practices’ have been used, but also need to be better understood, in order to stop them.

Google further reported they banned the use of addiction broker ads within the United States and will be banning them in the United Kingdom as well [4].

Overall, Google is working to resolve the issue of illegal businesses taking advantage of the internet marketing industry of addiction treatment. Members of Google and the search engine industry, seem to be working to prevent further abuse of vulnerable individuals and their families.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.
Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Corkery, M. (2017, September 14). Google Sets Limits on Addiction Treatment Ads, Citing Safety. Retrieved January 29, 2018, from
[2] I. (2018, January 07). Google makes millions from plight of addicts. Retrieved January 29, 2018, from
[3] Smith, M., Levin, J., & Bergen, M. (2017, September 26). Why It Took Google So Long to End Shady Rehab Center Ads. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[4] Google removes addiction treatment ads from UK search results. (2018, January 08). Retrieved January 11, 2018, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on April 2, 2018
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 2, 2018.