The Dangers of Searching for Treatment Online

Many people search for help for addiction online. According to the online tool Ahrefs, in the United States alone, about 3,000 people a month search for “drug rehab,” 2,000 a month for “addiction treatment,” and 4,500 for “heroin withdrawal.” The internet is a great tool, offering people the opportunity to find help when and where they need it. However, there are some dangers associated with searching for help online.

As a company specializing in addiction treatment marketing, we’re quite familiar with what can go wrong. We work with those in the addiction treatment industry to help them market themselves.

Often, the help that people find online is not the best help for themselves or a loved one. It’s one of the reasons that we don’t work with every organization that comes our way. If we’re going to help bring an organization to the top of search results, we want to know they’re doing good work and helping people the right way.

By educating ourselves and understanding how internet search works, we can begin to see that Google isn’t showing us the best treatment centers, but those that have the best marketing campaigns. Whether you are someone looking for help, somebody who may refer or recommend treatment centers to clients or friends, or an employee of an addiction treatment facility yourself, knowledge is power. Understanding how advertising works, we can see that these listings aren’t sorted in order of quality. And understanding that the treatment industry is a business we can see that admissions counselors are partly salespeople (yes, generalization).

I know this may be taboo to speak about publicly. I also know that every facility is unique, and we are speaking in generalizations. We’ll discuss a few things here, but want to note that these are our thoughts. Furthermore, we will steer clear of discussing our clients at all, as this is a violation of our contracts with our clients. However, we can share from a general standpoint what we know about the industry and what we’ve personally seen.

Advertising Budget

The essential danger here is that the company with the biggest marketing budget is not necessarily the best treatment center for you. Let us be clear; we’re not saying that big companies with big budgets are bad. There are many treatment centers out there spending tons of money on marketing campaigns AND doing wonderful work. There are also places out there spending tons of money and offering care that doesn’t fit your needs. The hardest part of this whole equation is that it can be impossible to tell which is which.

When you search something in Google, you’re likely to get a few types of results. One of these is paid listings, or advertisements. You can see an example to the right of a few paid search listings. Our intention is not to comment on these specific organizations or any organization that uses paid advertising. However, it can be good to understand how they work so we recognize their value to us when we’re looking for help.

These listings are done on a bidding basis. That is, organizations bid to show up in these search results. They pick terms and topics, and set their advertising budget. When someone searches, they’re being shown advertisers that meet the criteria in play. This includes keywords typed in, recent websites you may have visited, time of day, and more. Although some or all of the listings may be perfect fits for someone, it really is a crapshoot.

Organic Search

In marketing, money gets things done. Although this is a generalization, facilities get what they pay for. Low-cost SEO companies and campaigns are less likely to result in first-page listings than high-budget campaigns. As such, companies with more working capital have an easier time reaching you when you’re searching for help. Again, this doesn’t inherently mean they’re bad. It just means they have money!

Although search listings may be more relevant to your search than the paid listings, they can still be manipulated. Just because a company shows up at the top doesn’t mean it’s the best facility. Google’s job is to show you the best and most relevant results, and they’re using hundreds of factors to decide what you see. However, it’s imperfect and subject to changes due to marketing campaigns.

Like paid advertisements on search engines or elsewhere, you can’t rely on the search engine to show you the best treatment for your specific needs. You can fish around websites in search results all you want, but you’re largely looking at sites that have strong branding and marketing. Again, this doesn’t mean they’re bad places!

Marketing & Sales

When you find a facility you like, you probably either pick up the phone and call or engage in a live chat with someone on their website. You may ask questions, learn about their program, and get answers to insurance-related questions. Although the person on the other end may be the kindest, most genuine human being in the world, they often want you to come in. The job of the person in the admissions position is to bring people in. In some unethical cases, admissions staff will say whatever needs to be said to get the person through the doors.

But let us assume that an admissions team is 100% ethical and operating within the law. Let’s say you own the treatment center with this highly ethical staff. You have one admissions staff who doesn’t seem to bring anyone in. Every time they get on the phone, the person seems to go to treatment elsewhere. At some point as a business, you have to bring in money. An admissions team needs to bring people in. In many cases, this means hiring a staff that is kind, knowledgeable, and professional. The fact that their job is to bring people into treatment doesn’t make them bad people or unethical. It’s just something important of which to be aware.

Referral Companies

Finally, we have referral companies, which are sometimes referred to as placement specialists, treatment specialists, or just “marketers.” What these people do is generally frowned upon. They take phone calls from people looking for treatment, and find a treatment center for the person. In some form, they make a commission when the individual goes to treatment. There are many dangers to this of course, as the individual or company may recommend a treatment center where they make a lot of money over a treatment center that is actually good for you.

To be completely clear, Mindful Marketing (the writer of this article) neither participates in this nor any other form of commission-based marketing. Although I understand the dangers of referral companies, it really isn’t that different from other forms of marketing. Let’s use an example. John Doe is looking for treatment for himself. He ends up talking to a referral company, who places him at XYZ Treatment Center. The company makes a fair amount of money, and XYZ isn’t a good fit for John. On the other hand, John does a search on Google and clicks an ad or organic listing on the first page. He gets an admissions person on the phone and is sold on the treatment center. This center, ABC Treatment Center, is also not a good fit.

I don’t mean in any way to defend referral companies, but I do want to make this point clear: whether you’re clicking listings on search results or using a referral company, you’re not 100% guaranteed to get ethical and perfect treatment. Furthermore, treatment centers are paying for clients both ways. They may pay for ads to reach you, or may pay to work with referral companies. Either way, it doesn’t guarantee a good quality of care.

On the other hand, many people do end up in a treatment center that truly helps them from using online resources. Just because a facility advertises or does marketing doesn’t mean they’re bad. My encouragement is to do your research either way! I do want to point out that the paid referral format is pretty much illegal. There are ways that facilities get around this on paper, but it’s still illegal at its core.

Making the Right Choice

Now that we’ve shared all the dangers, it’s time to look at what we do with this information! First, try to see if you can find some reviews on the treatment center. There are big review sites like Facebook and Yelp, and also treatment-specific review sites. When you look at reviews, you have to understand that they are also imperfect. Maybe someone relapsed and left a bad review because they didn’t get their way. Maybe some positive reviews are fake. You can’t really control for this too much, so just look where you can. Going to treatment is a huge life change, and it isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly.

When you speak to admissions staff, ask any questions you have. If you hear an answer that seems like a non-answer or the person is avoiding the question, try pressing one more time. You may not get all the perfect answers you want, but see what you can do. You may want to know things like if they treat mental health disorders, what is included in treatment, what the staff to client ratio is, visiting policies, and if they have any alumni with whom you can speak. There’s nothing wrong with trying to know what you’re getting yourself into!

I know this post may seem like I’m advocating against the very principles by which my business is built. If people stop going to treatment off Internet searches, I’m out of a job! However, I do think it’s possible to do good work, help people, and make money. We make a serious effort to work with rehabs and sober livings that we believe in. When we help a company reach the top of Google, we sleep well at night knowing they’re busy helping people. I’m a sober nerd, and I love that people are using technology to find help with their addictions. I just think people should be educated first and foremost.

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