Google has removed search ads related to addiction treatment in the UK, following an investigation by The Sunday Times (registration required).
The investigation revealed an ongoing issue with middlemen bidding on the terms and receiving large kickbacks from the private centers where the searchers are ultimately referred to, in a practice called “patient brokering.”
The companies frequently masquerade as impartial help lines without disclosing their business model to the searchers that encounter them. The move to remove them from UK results follows an earlier change in the US. Google began removing ads from addiction treatment-related query results in the US starting in September of last year.
The practice of patient brokering is illegal in several states in the US, but it is not illegal in the UK. Critics of the practice cite this as one of the reasons for the increased cost of care, pointing out the high commissions paid out to the referral agents have to come from somewhere. Those funds also help referral agents afford the steep cost per click in the addiction vertical, which can command upward of $200 a click.
Both the US and the UK have seen an increase in addiction-related searches, making it an industry ripe for profiteering. The opioid addiction crisis in the US has led to a flood of searches for rehabilitation services. The UK has seen addiction-related deaths reach an all-time high.
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