Legitscript’s Answers Create More Questions About Google Adwords Certification for Addiction Treatment

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Google announced last month that it would be partnering with Portland-based company, Legitscript, to pre-screen addiction treatment advertisers and weed out bad actors in the industry. When I heard the news, I was honestly pretty interested to see how this company—with a background in evaluating online pharmacies and telemedicine firms—would go about telling the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in addiction treatment.

As a professional who has been in the field for years now, sometimes even I am not sure where to draw that line, especially as opportunistic “providers” get better and better at shielding their true identities online.

While best practices exist and evidence-based treatment is available, the truth is that addiction treatment is evolving every day. At the same time, it’s vitally important that Legitscript gets this right. We only want legitimate providers to be able to get any real reach on Google. We can’t go back to the “Wild West” days of PPC advertising on Google where leads were essentially hunted for profit and placed in inappropriate care.

I reached out to Legitscript with some questions in a recent blog post. I was excited when I got a very nice email from Legitscript’s Communications Specialist letting me know that their team had mulled over my questions and posted some thoughtful (if tentative) answers in a blog post of their own. It's unusual for a company to be so responsive, so I think that their quick reply to my questions bodes well. At least we know that they're listening and they're open to dialog.  

Today, I'll review Legitscript’s answers here and evaluate their responses based on their usefulness to the industry as a whole. You'll notice many of these answers lead to more questions.

It's early days, folks, and Legitscript will be the first to admit that this is going to be a process.  

Question: When will everyone get a chance to be certified?

My Interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: July, I think?

Here’s the thing: Legitscript says that they’ll “begin certifying applicants beyond the initial pool [of up to 30 applicants] in July,” which I’m interpreting optimistically to mean that everyone can start getting in line for certification in July. Their statement here leaves a little room for interpretation, however, and it could be that they left this intentionally vague to buy a bit of leeway to slowly “ramp up speed” (another phrase they use) if they run into problems with the process that need ironing out before the program goes fully live.

In other words, we may see certifications beyond the beta pool trickle in beginning in July but not see the faucet turned firmly to the “on” position until fall or winter 2018.

Question: How long does it take to get certified, once the process starts?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: They’re guessing, based on their experience with pharmaceutical and telemedicine companies, that it’ll take “weeks.” Legitscript doesn’t want to commit to an average timeline because they honestly don’t know yet.

This is pretty fair.

I’m guessing certification for addiction treatment is going to take a lot longer than pharmacies and telemedicine, though.


Because “shady online pharmacy” is a nice word for “internet drug dealer.” That’s who Legitscript has mostly been dealing with up until now.

The FDA, as well as law enforcement, tend to perk up around issues like that. They have clearly defined processes for dealing with these situations. If legal prescription drugs are being sold without a prescription—that’s clearly illegal. If non-FDA approved drugs are being peddled as legit medicine, that’s illegal, too. We have lots of consumer protections already legislated around these issues and sorting the wheat from the chaff here seems, to me, to be a relatively straight-forward task.

Not so for addiction treatment.

Although we have evidence-based practices, excellent researchers, amazing counselors and upstanding programs all around this country, there is a distinct lack of national organization when it comes to center accreditation and even professional practitioner training. We are very far behind the rest of Western medicine in this respect. Just a few of the many problems I can think of here:

  • We’ve got inconsistent state-based licensing for rehabs

  • Some states don’t require licensing for rehabs at all

  • There is no nationally accepted credential for addiction professionals

  • Most treatment modalities (12 steps, etc) are not “approved” by any official entity

This means that Legitscript has a more complicated terrain to navigate when it comes to evaluating rehabs and treatment centers. Of course it will take Legitscript longer to evaluate our programs—we only sort of know how to evaluate them ourselves.

QUESTION: Will the certification process be modified as time goes on?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: Yep.

They’re partnering with authorities in the industry (Partnership for Drug Free Kids and the NAATP, among others) to get a "beat" on best practices and expert recommendations. I’m sure the process will change over time and they leave that possibility wide open.

Question: What about international providers? Will they ever be able to be certified?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: Maybe, maybe not. And certainly not for a very long time.

Legitscript wants to get a handle on things in the US first and then go from there. They seemed very noncommittal about when they might even “evaluate the extent to which” they “want to expand globally.”

So, basically, don’t hold your breath for this to happen.

Question: What’s up with the on-site medical provider requirement for certification?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: Very hard to say from their answer. If you want to be safe, make sure you have on-site providers, of course.

Here’s the deal. Legitscript states: “In general, we’re typically looking for an application that is providing addiction treatment services to have either an on-site medical provider or, at the very least, someone who functionally is on-site (e.g., at a nearby facility and regularly in attendance).” They call this a “best practice” but note that this doesn’t apply to places like mutual support groups or crisis lines.

This is essentially a non-answer with lots of room for interpretation and revision.

Here’s where I start to wonder: is the presence of a medical provider something Legitscript will take into account holistically along with other factors to make an overall judgement call about a facility? Or will "has an onsite medical provider" be a box that must be checked along with a series of other boxes to qualify for certification? How much human evaluation is going to go on at Legitscript and how much of the process will be automated?

Legitscript really doesn’t clarify if the presence of an on-site medical provider—whether that person is on-staff or just makes regular rounds—is a true deal-breaker or not. Perhaps it’s not. However, it's very, very difficult to tell from this answer. 

Question: What’s going on with sober homes? Why can’t they be certified?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: They’re not touching that cluster with a ten foot pole any time soon.

Due to semi-recent revelations about widespread abuses in this sector, especially by some treatment facilities operating under the so-called “Florida Model,” Legitscript is probably wise to hesitate here. Legitscript’s hesitation is very unfortunate for the many legit cooperative recovery homes that have existed in this country for decades, although these tend to rely more on word-of-mouth marketing than search engine PPC anyway.

It will be interesting to see if Legitscript ever ventures into evaluating recovery residences and—if they do—what criteria they will use.

I would love to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.  

question: Can folks who own more than one treatment center get a bulk certification discount?

My interpretation of Legitscript’s answer: This is the only question on this list that I’m aware of that wasn’t originally posted by me on this blog. I can appreciate that some enterprising COOs are angling for a bulk discount, especially seeing as the certification process isn’t cheap - $989 to apply and $1989 to keep the certification every year.

Legitscript says they’ll play ball with “volume discounts for single corporate or non-profit applicants with multiple facilities,” as long as “those facilities (and their websites) have similar or identical information for review.” They also add that there “may” be fee waivers available for non-profits, which I certainly appreciate.  

As far as how large these discounts may be—hard to say.

I wonder, too, how easy it will be for some companies with complex corporate structures to qualify as “single corporate applicants” in Legitscript’s eyes.

Looks like we’ll have to keep waiting for better answers

This is a new program for Google and a new contract for Legitscript. Only time will tell how some of these issues are handled by these companies and it’s likely we’ll see a wide range of provider experiences in the early days of the certification program. As more information about folks’ experience with the Legitscript certification process trickles in, I’ll update readers here with those stories.

In the meantime, if you are considering participating in the certification process, good luck with your application! Definitely reach out to me with any experiences you have. I’d be all ears and I’m sure we can all learn from your story.

If all this Legitscript stuff sounds like too much of a hassle, remember you have options. Email marketing, content marketing and targeted Facebook ads are killer ways to promote your treatment center and you can often see stronger results for less with these strategies. As always, I’m happy to help.

Erin Gilday