Google will now allow ads to run on addiction-related keywords and phrases after a nearly year-long ban instituted to crack down on shady providers cashing in on vulnerable patients. A small group of providers vetted by a third party have been approved by the company to appear in results for searches like “help quitting pills” or “meth addiction.”
The ban on these ads was rolled out in stages starting in September of last year in the U.S. and going global in January. It was provoked by a series of reports showing that people looking for help were being essentially traded like commodities and sent to incredibly expensive “addiction centers” that often provided little recovery help at all.
At the time Google pledged to keep the ban in place until it could find a way to reintroduce ads safely and ethically, and it has taken its time doing so. All addiction-related ad words were shut off completely, and while this introduced problems of its own (people searching for “help quitting pills” don’t want the WebMD page for addiction) it was probably the only logical choice.
Following this, Google partnered with LegitScript, a Portland company that specializes in verifying medicine-related businesses online. It has a 15-point checklist to make sure businesses are licensed and compliant, list medications and treatment plans, demonstrate qualifications and professionalism (i.e. not a quack operating out of their living room), have no shady history or what have you and so on. The whole list is here.
Only recovery and addiction centers vetted by LegitScript will be allowed to run ads against addiction-related queries on Google.
Recovery Centers of America (RCA), which has a handful of facilities around the country, is one of the first wave of approved advertisers.
“What they were trying to get rid of were these ‘lead aggregators’ that were posing as treatment centers, but were basically selling the patients,” said RCA’s director of marketing strategy and operations, Grant McClernon. “They wanted people who were operating under state scrutiny, providing real treatment.”
“It was a wild wild west out there,” added Bill Koroncai, the company’s director of communications. “So we support Google’s work to weed out the unethical providers in the industry.”
They explained that Google originally planned to greenlight 30 providers — which is to say facilities, of which a provider like RCA might have just one or dozens — but they were inundated with applications and had to expand the first wave of the program to closer to 100.
That’s not necessarily indicative of a rush on Google’s part; it seems more likely that the larger number turned out to be the realistic one if most regions and most needs were to be served. With 30 facilities you wouldn’t even have one in every state.
Addiction treatment providers won’t be treated any differently from other keyword purchasers, except that there will have to be a yearly check-up process through LegitScript to make sure they’re still worthy of being included.
It’s probably wise that Google didn’t get into the vetting process itself; this sets an easier precedent for the ad giant in that when conflicts like this one come up, it doesn’t have to hire a specialized team dedicated to combating fraud in that specific domain.
A Google representative said that ads should start running as soon as the companies paying for them are certified, which could be right now depending on the region and keyword.
Originally published at techcrunch.com