As a result of an undercover investigation by the Sunday Times, search giant Google has recently elected to start restricting pay per click (PPC) adverts which specifically target people searching for drug rehabilitation facilities.
Posing as executives from a new treatment centre, undercover reporters filmed two meetings last year of the UK’s largest leading referral agency, Addiction Helper. The reporters met with Daniel Gerrard, the head of Addiction Helper, at his offices in Elstree, Hertfordshire, in November 2017.
Gerrard discussed the lucrative arrangement between Google and the rehabilitation expensive clinics such as the Priory Group, Gladstones, Charterhouse, Regain Recovery and Bayberry.
Targeting Addicts Prohibited in the US
Google — which made £59bn from advertising in 2016 had already banned this practice in the US but were tardy in applying this same rule to the UK. Last September, Google barred US PPC adverts that were triggered by search terms such as “addiction” and “rehab” due to concerns that vulnerable addicts were being taken advantage of.
As a result of the Sunday Times article Google has now applied the same restrictions to UK PPC adverts. Google made a statement saying that: “Substance abuse is a growing crisis and has led to deceptive practices by intermediaries that we need to better understand.
In the US, we restricted ads entirely in this category and we have decided to extend this to the UK as we consult with local experts to update our policy and find a better way to connect those that need help with the treatment they need.”
Lack of Transparency Worrying
The targets of these PPC adverts were often vulnerable addicts seeking to get better or concerned family members desperate to help a loved one, people feeling overwhelmed and looking for clear answers. The PPC ads in question were misleading since they did not advertise the fact that they received a fee for each patient they paired with a clinic. While this practice is not illegal the intermediate advisors would not promote the fact they received a referral fee.
People calling the helpline were unaware that these agents would receive a substantial referral fee from the clinics that were recommended. Agencies or middle-men masqueraded as “free helplines” that would recommend the best course of treatment for a recovering addict. The referral fees could be as high as £20,000 per month for referring only one patient to one of these clinics.
By forking out exuberant fees to Google, as much as £200 PPC, referral agencies ensured that they appeared at the top of the Google search page. One agency snagged the top five positions on Google’s result page by paying a staggering £350,000 a month to Google for advertising.
Clinics paying top referral fees were promoted to those who called the helpline. The Department of Health issued a statement saying: “It’s disheartening that those seeking privately funded help for their addiction are potentially being exploited.”
Sarah Wollaston MP said: “The level of payments for these referral agents via promoted links cannot be justified in my view especially as those desperate to tackle their addictions are unknowingly picking up the bill”.