A recent change to Google search results for terms related to addiction treatment has caught the attention of marketers across the industry and raised the ire of several.
On May 27, Jared Moré, a local marketing consultant based in Washington state who works with addiction treatment and behavioral healthcare providers, says he was conducting a routine search to see where his clients’ competitors ranked for certain terms. Atop the results, he was greeted with a large box displaying the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline.
Curious as to whether this was a small-scale test—a tactic commonly deployed by Google when the search giant wants to tinker with how it displays results—or a new standard, Moré reset the location for his account to all 50 states. The SAMHSA helpline box appeared in results for 13.
(Editor’s note: The photo accompanying this story shows the box appearing in a Google search conducted from Ohio on June 8.)
Moré tells BHE that while he has no issues with SAMHSA, Google’s decision to put the administration’s helpline in a box that dominates search results comes at the expense of a number of treatment organizations not included in SAMHSA’s provider listings.
“SAMHSA is great. They’ve done some good work in the industry. They’ve done some really good scientific work, and they’re a quality entity,” Moré says. “But, by providing that huge search result, it takes away from the free market idea of search and the free market idea of Google in general. They want to index the entire web and make it available to everyone. That [large SAMHSA helpline box] biases the search toward the SAMHSA results.”
Moré wrote about his findings—and his concerns—in a LinkedIn article that he published on May 29. He also reached out to a search liaison and a webmaster trends analyst at Google on social media, as well as the company’s main Twitter account, but says he has not received a response. BHE, meanwhile, reached out to Google’s press team for this story, but also did not received a reply.
Moré’s concern with SAMHSA’s helpline getting top billing in Google search results is based on several factors:
- SAMHSA’s directory of treatment centers does not include non-licensed alternative treatment programs, such as those that are religious, progressive and community based.
- Providers must have authorization to bill third-party payers for treatment services.
- Whereas calls directly to some treatment centers are received by licensed counselors who can conduct immediate assessments, callers to the SAMHSA helpline are asked a brief set of standard questions without a counselor present.
Asks Moré: “Does this provide a better result, a result that is going to help them get treatment faster, or is it going to create more confusion in an already-stressful time for the family, who does most of the searching, or the person suffering from addiction themselves?”
Moreover, Dreamscape Marketing president and CEO Daniel Gemp says that his firm’s clients in the addiction treatment space have observed the SAMHSA box appearing not only in the results of searches for addiction treatment-related terms, but also searches for their brand names and trademarks.
“Is a government directory and helpline being populated above a treatment center's website when they are searched for by name a better resource or a point of confusion for searchers?” Gemp wrote in an email to BHE.
“From a paid search Google customer standpoint, many treatment providers are now wondering why they paid thousands of dollars for a third-party background check by LegitScript to then pay Google for advertisements and find search results to have been manipulated to a resource that is not actually even a treatment provider. In general, Google's attention to this epidemic and goal of providing expansive resources during the coronavirus pandemic is well-intentioned and ‘consumer first,’ but the actual medical service providers in addiction treatment have stepped up to provide the additional protocols, content and information that these consumers need, and [they] would like to see it displayed as that primary resource for those consumers.”
Editor's note: This story was revised on August 4, 2020, to remove a sentence referencing the hours of operation for the SAMHSA helpline. The service is staffed 24/7.