Lately, I’ve noticed an extraordinary number of shady net-tactics being employed by psychotherapists hoping to boost their search engine rankings, while overstating their professional qualifications. As far as I know, Google’s search algorithm evaluates neither the validity nor the meaning of credentials when assigning search rankings to psychotherapy websites.
Among the most irritating of these promotional shenanigans, I find that Master’s level therapists of every ilk, often seed their web sites with keywords and tags designed to place them among psychologists in the search engine results. It takes no more than a minute to find numerous examples of this shady tactic.
Using Google to search locally for ‘psychologists,’ I found that Google yielded the highest ranking in the pay-per-click results to a practice comprised exclusively of Masters level social workers. This would suggest that this group of social workers chose the word psychologists as a keyword for their Google adwords account.
Selecting Source on the View menu revealed what is invisible to those who view this page under normal conditions.
The words psychologists and psychology were also included as keywords on the webpage itself, indicating that these practitioners are intentionally steering Google searches for psychologists toward this page owned by a group that does not employ a single psychologist or any other doctoral level mental health practitioner.
In every state in America, it is illegal for these therapists to use the words psychology and psychologist to promote their own practices as therapists. Likewise it is illegal for these therapists to list themselves in the Yellow Pages or other directories under the heading of Psychologist.
Compared with Masters level therapists, clinical psychologists hold doctorates and receive far more advanced education and clinical training. Psychologists must comply with far more demanding licensure requirements, as well. Except in certain increasingly rare cases, Masters level therapists in the U.S. who attempts to pass themselves off as psychologists are engaging in consumer fraud and the illegal practice of psychology without a license, depending upon the state. They may practice as psychotherapists, but they are not permitted to misrepresent and overstate their qualifications by suggesting that they are psychologists.
With the advent of the internet as a significant marketing tool for mental health services, invisible keywords and hidden tags present new opportunities to skirt the letter of the law. The intentional use of keywords and tags — visible to Googlebots but invisible to the consumer — are actions that walk along the edge of deception. When a counselor with a two-year graduate degree uses the tag psychologist, in his or her web page or as a keyword in a pay-per-click ad, that counselor has indeed used the word psychologist to promote him or herself. It strains credulity to suggest that no deception whatsoever is intended by this sort of conduct, yet this practice is widespread.
In time, perhaps, the law may address this kind of deception, but it may not matter. The dishonest always seem to find new ways to deceive. What galls me most is that these types believe they are fit to function as ‘psychotherapists.’
Patients who have been drawn into treatment by therapists who rely on shady promotional tactics might as well pack it in before they begin. A therapist who compromises honesty for financial gain is not a psychotherapist at all. With the decision to engage in shady advertising practices, a therapist signals an inclination toward exploitative abuse of the patient’s trust in the service of personal gain. Such gain falls outside the bounds of an explicitly stated fee for service honestly represented and rendered.
Another shady but increasingly commonplace promotional tactic finds therapists referring to themselves as ‘authors’ on the basis of articles published in blogs and self-published books featured on their practice websites. To create a false impression of greater professional stature and accomplishment, such a therapist might refer to himself as ‘Psychotherapist and Author’John D. Seaver, M.S., B.S. The digital revolution makes it possible for anyone to self-publish for a few hundred dollars. This brings a listing on Amazon, along with book reviews from sources that cannot be verified. I have seen many instances of this shady tactic used to promote the psychotherapy practices of therapists who are, at best, minimally qualified to legally engage in practice. In many cases, not more than a handful of books may have been sold to family members and patients who felt obligated to purchase a copy.
Padded vitae or résumés are also commonplace, with therapists piling on credentials and certifications gained in weekend seminars and workshops, as if these credentials offset the deficiencies associated with having opted for the quick and easy route to hanging out a shingle. My experience has been that the vast majority of these training seminars and workshops range from banal and clinically questionable at best, to outlandish quackery at their worst. Not only do these workshops fail to remediate the weaknesses of an insubstantial training foundation, they also create armies of psychotherapists who believe that some charismatic quack has provided them with the keys to therapeutic and marketing Nirvana.
Legitimate academic conferences for scholars and clinicians to present and discuss their work certainly do exist and these conferences can be helpful to the serious clinician. These conferences do not offer padding for the attendees’ vitae, and they don’t provide meaningless certifications to impress patients.
To be continued...