Google dropped a virtual bombshell on the addiction treatment marketing landscape yesterday. The search giant reportedly stopped serving ads for a set of keywords widely used by addiction treatment providers: terms like “rehab near me” and “alcohol treatment”. They are reportedly taking steps to stem Google business listing abuse as well. This change may prove catastrophic to some providers. Some spend millions of dollars on Adwords and depend upon the program almost entirely to drive census.
Those familiar with the addiction field’s ethical marketing track may have guessed that change was in the wind. But few if any may have anticipated this sudden change or its immediate implications. The specific keywords and changes Google implemented are not likely to be made public. What is known is that this change sends an important signal to the market–that Google is not interested in facilitating misleading advertising practices.
Time will tell just how significant and widespread the changes are and how they may effect advertisers. One thing that is certain is that this swift change should be sending cold chills through those heavily dependent upon Adwords for clients.
Google’s crack-down will have other consequences. One is the potential rise in the perceived importance of directory sites with high organic rankings. Rehabs.com, for example, has always ranked highly. But without as many paid ads to contend with, this directory becomes even more prominent. Interestingly, while Google has taken steps to prevent itself from enabling unethical practices, the move could empower and embolden less ethical practices. This may cause a “flight to quality” in which massive budgets are shifted from Adwords to the purchase of entire directory sites or domains with high organic search results. It will be fascinating to see if Google applies similar logic to organic results-potentially affecting organic ratings as well.
This move underscores the importance of taking a balanced and integrated marketing approach. This change poses enormous risk to those overly dependent on Adwords, but less of a risk for those with a more balanced portfolio of marketing vehicles. Those who stand to benefit from this change are the programs who deliver excellent clinical outcomes but who have been gradually overshadowed by massive spending. Regional independents may get a boost as they have fewer competitive impressions for prospective patients.
This is also an important moment to emphasize the lasting power of brand. When programs are able to build and maintain trust and preference, they are more likely to achieve a diversified census driven by referring professionals, alumni, and appropriate marketing. It is possible that Google’s recent changes will actually make it easier for healthcare consumers find exceptional care.