Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Citing patient safety, Google said it would stop selling ads based on keyword search terms related to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers after advocates said for-profit companies hijacked the site's top search results.
In some cases, the advocates said, the for-profit rehab facilities would not provide the best care for a patient, or they misrepresented basic facts like where they are located. In other instances, the top ad-driven search results pointed users to facilities facing criminal prosecution for preying on unsuspecting addicts and their families.
Unlike other diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's, where patients are referred by their doctors to specialized clinics or long-term care facilities for treatment, addiction sufferers rarely receive professional recommendations. Often, they do not have a primary physician to make a referral, which leaves concerned family members or friends as the driving force behind convincing them to seek treatment. Absent other sources of information, they most frequently turn to the Internet for assistance in locating a rehab facility, leaving them vulnerable to bad actors online.
The Google advertising problem, first brought to the company's attention by patient advocate groups, highlights a much larger problem as the United States healthcare system tries to combat an epidemic of opioid abuse.
Google acknowledged its paid search results for a predictable phrase, like "rehab facility near me," do not make clear what kind of place the user was seeing first.
The ads were big business for Google until Thursday, when they largely disappeared from search results. The way Google's keyword advertising works, customers bid to be the top ad-related search result for keyword phrases related to their business. Some of the top rehab facilities and their referral services were paying upwards of $70 for a single click, knowing that someone who signed up for a typical 30-day treatment schedule might net tens of thousands of dollars, often paid for by health insurance companies.
"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 has only limited the search engine ads in a few select instances before, including payday lenders. It also created a verification system for sites seeking to buy search results related to locksmiths after concerns arose that thieves could use Google as a real-time referral service for people locked out of their homes.
Unlike hospitals and clinics that are closely regulated and monitored by states and the Food and Drug Administration, rehab centers are a hodgepodge of loosely regulated facilities that add up to a $35 billion-per-year industry that employ varying degrees of medical science in their treatment regiments. Some facilities are run by licensed physicians and rely on traditional methods of psychological and drug therapy, while others are run by individuals with little or no formal medical training and turn to yoga and meditation.