Updated: October 1, 2022
Beginning in February 2018, Google began slowly rolling out a significant change to how it presents search results in the United States when users query for services and information related to substance abuse and mental health issues — which will soon cause a shift in how many will approach digital marketing strategies for rehabs.
The placement of the National Helpline page provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as one of the top three search results for high volume keywords like:
- “AA meetings near me” — 90,500 monthly searches*
- “xanax withdrawal” — 12,100 monthly searches*
- “drug rehab” — 9,900 monthly searches*
The rise in ranking presence of this page was exponential – according to data from SEMrush, its presence in the top 3 of Google results increased by over 1,100% in just one month.
But that was just the beginning:
- In March, its presence in the Google top three increased by an additional 200%
- In April, its presence increased almost another 16% over March
Similarly, traffic estimates to the site also grew by enormous leaps and bounds.
As of May 2018, the SAMHSA National Helpline page continues to rank in the top three of Google for about 44,000 different search terms. If you are responsible for growing admission inquiries at a substance abuse or mental health facility through organic marketing strategies, there is no doubt this ranking change is going to cause you to rethink a few of your tactics.
The good news is that rehab facilities can respond accordingly despite this radical new development. Here are eight alternative marketing strategies you can leverage quickly to help overcome SAMHSA’s recent rise to dominance in the SERPs.
1) Get Approved to Run AdWords
This past September, Google began restricting ads from showing for a variety of searches related to addiction treatment after it noticed that some facilities running ads through the platform did not provide a high enough quality of care to help patients recover. In January, they followed suit in the UK as well. Since then, the ban on advertising in Google for addiction services has been extended globally.
For facilities to be able to advertise on Google moving forward, they will now have to be certified by LegitScript, a company that specializes in keeping the Internet safer, more transparent, and more independent. According to their website, LegitScript plans on approving about 30 facilities by the end of July 2018 and then will move forward from there.
To be fair, there’s no doubt that running PPC campaigns in the substance abuse and mental health niche is a costly marketing strategy. It’s likely to be an ROI-positive endeavor if managed correctly, and the new LegitScript certification is going to keep a lot of the less ethical facilities from competing for clicks.
With the presence of the SAMHSA National Helpline in so many top search result positions, running an AdWords campaign is the only 100% viable option for getting into a page position above them.
Similar to becoming a listed facility in the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator from SAMHSA, getting your facility listed will take some time, but the process is pretty simple. If you are a representative of a facility interested in starting an application, you can click here to submit one.
2) Getting Listed in SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
One of my favorite online marketing strategies comes from the adage, “…if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” From some of our research into how Google presents this SERP listing for SAMHSA, the link for the National Helpline will often include a sitelink to SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator right underneath its meta description.
The fact is that Google favors displaying links from SAMHSA over other possible search results prominently, so getting your original content or sales-driven pages to rank above SAMHSA will be extremely difficult — almost near impossible. However, SAMHSA has an online treatment finder, and rehab facilities can request to be added to that list of treatment providers. Not only does this tactic provide a backlink from a .gov domain — one of the highest-value links you can score — but it can pretty reliably generate a reputable source of referral traffic.
If you represent a newer facility, or your facility is not currently listed in SAMHSA’s Treatment Services Locator, getting your facility listed will take some time. The process is pretty simple, and here’s how it works according to the FAQ on the locator’s website:
- The BHSIS Project Office verifies that your facility is eligible by contacting your local representatives or SAMHSA/CBHSQ. As an alternative, you can also contact your state mental health or substance abuse agency to help with verification.
- You receive a survey in the mail from I-BHS, complete it and return.
- About a month passes, and pending final approval, your facility should be good to go. Just know that they typically add new facilities on a monthly basis.
To maintain your listing, you are required to respond annually to either the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS) or the National Mental Health Services Survey (N-MHSS). These surveys go out every March, and your facility will be required to provide updated information each year after your facility was added to the list.
3) Position Your Site Where SAMHSA Can’t Be Featured
While SAMHSA will continue to dominate organic search results, they technically only have one physical location in Rockville, Maryland. As far as Google is concerned, SAMHSA can’t be featured in local SEO search results because they are not considered to be a provider of local treatment services.
SAMHSA will always be your biggest competitor for traffic in the search engines, but one area Google is leaving open for you to own continues to be local SEO. On desktop searches, a map listing with three facilities is included with nearly every top searched keyword phrase related to substance abuse and mental health services. On mobile devices, the map takes over all of the SERP real estate above the fold.
At a bare minimum, if you have not taken over ownership of your Google My Business listing, or verified your business with the following top local directories:
- Apple Maps
- Bing Local
Opportunity is leaving you behind.
If you already have your business confirmed on all five of the platforms listed above, you are off to a great start. But you’ll want to take it further with local SEO as there are still as many as 22 other local directories we deem to have a “high” or “very high” citation value.
Because of the presence of the SAMHSA listing at the top of the search results, the fact that you want to target new admissions on a local or national level will not matter – you’re going to want to leverage every ounce of opportunity local SEO has to offer.
Don’t get left behind — local SEO needs to be a critical part of your rehab facility’s online marketing strategy.
4) Go Hyperlocal
There are a lot of well-established websites in the substance abuse and mental health niche that have leveraged hyperlocal keyword searches very effectively over the years. In fact, many of the most highly trafficked sites in this niche leverage creating a directory of rehab facilities and treatment centers to drive referrals to advertisers like your business.
Sites like SoberNation and Rehabs.com have done this for years and become so successful with this as a marketing strategy that they can now get you to pay them for traffic. Because of how well sites like this perform in the SERPs, these types of directories can be a good source of both relevant referral traffic as well as qualified admissions leads.
It can be tough to justify paying to be listed in a directory, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore these opportunities entirely. Think of it this way — if you can justify paying to be part of your local chamber of commerce, you could probably justify paying to be listed in a directory that can help grow your admissions.
Outside of becoming listed in rehab focused directories, you can also apply a hyperlocal approach to your website. If you know zip codes, names of popular suburban areas, or names of specific cities and towns within a dedicated drive radius of your facility, then you can leverage localized content to rank for some highly targeted long tail keyword searches.
5) Take Advantage of Question-Based Queries
According to research compiled by Jumpshot and analyzed by Moz in March 2017, roughly 8% of Google searches are phrased as questions. With voice search only continuing to rise in popularity, the percentage of question-based searches are sure to grow accordingly.
Do you have an FAQ page on your facility’s website? When you publish blog content, are you writing titles and subheadings in your posts in the form of a question?
Take the time to answer both common and uncommon questions. Try to compile questions you may often get from admission prospects and their families about your treatment approaches, facilities, or warning signs that a loved one needs to know. There are two major benefits to taking this approach:
- You will be building trust and helping inform people who need help but are not ready to call.
- Your site will benefit from a larger number of entry points from keyword searches, lessening the impact that SAMHSA’s top positioning will take away from search traffic to your facility.
What questions are your admissions team, or your clinical staffers, uniquely qualified to answer? Give them a laptop and have them start writing!
6) Don’t Forget About Your Program Features
Of the over 44,000 keyword phrases where Google displays the SAMHSA National Helpline link in the top three results, below is just a small taste of the monetary worth of some of these keywords, sorted by top monthly search volume estimates.*
That’s a very small sampling of the data SEMrush has on rankings for the National Helpline page, but with a pretty quick glance, you will notice some trends across the keywords that Google is using to trigger this result.
- Keywords that include different forms of addiction
- Keywords that indicate someone is researching reactions to substance abuse (withdrawal, side effects, etc.)
- Keywords that indicate someone is looking to find/get help (AA, NA, rehab, etc.)
Now, in contrast to that, you may have noticed that keywords related to general program features were not in the above example. These days, no substance abuse or mental health facility is the same. Dig in to communicate what makes your approach to recovery unique from other facilities:
- Does your program take a mindfulness approach to relapse prevention?
- Do you leverage the outdoors as a therapy method?
- Does your staff have multiple advanced certifications or education credentials?
Whatever makes your facility stand out from the rest of the facilities out there, now is the time to capitalize on it. Make sure your site has dedicated pages related to those programs and features and support those dedicated pages with press releases or blog post content. Optimize the dedicated pages for maximum search visibility by applying on-page SEO best practices and leverage link building strategies from the supporting content to heighten the importance of the dedicated pages to search engines.
7) Cater Content to Your Audience, Not Attention
In response to this latest development regarding Google search, a lot of digital marketing agencies are going to suggest you try to leverage content marketing strategies only with the intention of generating interest from top-tier publishers. The idea here is that getting coverage in front of a national audience should generate backlinks and a lot of impressions.
The concept can also be referred to as viral marketing — because “going viral” is super easy, right?
To us, this feels like an expensive fool’s errand; unless, of course, the idea of a campaign with a large expense and little to no attributable ROI sounds like something your facility wants to try out.
Instead of going with a “10X content” approach that will have an impact on the attention your brand receives and little else, the more sensible approach is to cater your content directly to your audience. Here are several alternatives to making “viral” content that could be better suited to get your facility highly-relevant traffic:
- Answering questions for the family members of potential admits
- Recapping research conducted in the industry that validates your approach to healing
- Sharing video testimonials from alumni who have dramatically improved their lives after release
For all types of people, it’s tough dealing with substance abuse and mental health. If you seek to be a resource for people by providing useful information at the right time, they will reach out when they need you the most. Don’t rely on occasional brand mentions in big publications with the hopes that people will remember you when the time is right.
8) Barnacle Your Brand To Top Ranking Content Publishers
Barnacle SEO is not a new strategy, but it can be a highly successful approach when situations like this occur. The term was coined by Will Scott of Search Influence about a decade ago and there was a must-watch Whiteboard Friday about it several years ago, too.
The idea behind Barnacle SEO is pretty straightforward – leverage the top rankings of other sites for your marketing gain.
Ever since April 2018, ranking for the top keywords in the substance abuse and mental health space became exponentially harder due to the update of SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Now, in addition to competing with other facilities and online publishers for top keyword rankings, getting them is almost impossible because of the injection of SAMHSA.
What can you do?
Create content specifically on other sites that rank for your targeted keywords. Five of our favorite target domains to leverage for this strategy include:
The value of links from these domains to help boost your search rankings is debatable. However, the referral traffic opportunity from all of them is great, and the frequency with which content on these sites ranks on the first page of Google results is high.
While getting a Wikipedia page about your facility may be difficult, creating a profile and submitting content to all of these platforms should become a high priority online marketing strategy this year.
Closing Thoughts On These Marketing Strategies for Rehabs
With locations in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the entire team at Direct Online Marketing is painfully aware of the opioid crisis that has now become a national emergency in the United States. As a company, we are also sensitive to the fact that there is no “one size fits all” fix, and that many people are turning to Google to find answers to their troubles.
We think it’s a good thing that Google is trying to get people help when they need it from a neutral source, similarly to how they changed their results for searches related to suicide a couple years back. But this change does force substance abuse and mental health treatment facilities to shift how they use search engine marketing strategies to create opportunities for themselves to provide care to the nearly 20 million Americans in need.
The top eight ways we suggest these facilities need to shift their marketing strategies include:
- Become a LegitScript certified advertiser so your facility can begin/resume running AdWords
- Get listed in the SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
- Maximize visibility in local SEO by completing any available citations
- Create content on your site dedicated to hyperlocal communities that are in need of your services
- Invest time into creating a comprehensive FAQ or blogging to answer common questions.
- Optimize pages on your site for rankings around the unique features of your programs
- Create content tailored to the families and individuals struggling with these issues
- “Barnacle” content published by your facility to top publishing platforms for better exposure
*Please note, this search data was pulled from SEMrush
Which strategy do you find to be the most compelling for your facility as you navigate this change? Let us know by tweeting directly to or .