Don’t you love the internet? It’s fabulous to look up a subject and find lots of great information. But it’s also unregulated, meaning that there is a lot of misinformation, phony data, and fake review sites.
Usually, these fake sites have been aimed at things like “10 Best Laptops” or “5 Top Web Hosting Sites,” but things have evolved. Now we see everything from eating disorder clinics to drug treatment centers throwing up these “review” sites.
This article focuses on Couples Therapy, and specifically, Couples Retreat review sites and Marriage Retreat review sites.
The primary reason there are so many fake sites is that it’s actually a pretty lucrative business. In other businesses, like web hosting sites, they offer a large fee—anywhere from $50-$150—for each referral that signs up for their web hosting. In that industry, it’s almost impossible to find hosting without landing on some fake “affiliate” website.
These Review Sites can skew their reviews and recommendations, favoring one service over another when the business offers a higher payout.
And they confuse the matter further by mixing in endorsements to reputable organizations to heighten the credibility of “commission-paying customers.”
In psychotherapy, it’s illegal for one therapist to pay another for a referral for obvious reasons. But it’s slightly more murky waters when it comes to paying for referrals from a fake review site.
I believe there ARE ethical provisions against it in our State Ethics Laws.
On 6/13/18 I emailed one clinician who showed up #1 in no less than 6 different review sites. I complained that every site presented “metrics” that ranked this particular therapist superior to John Gottman himself. I warned this owner of the potential ethics violations as this, alone, was highly suspicious. The next day, presto chango! Each review site. In one Gottman was now #1. Also, all the fake “metrics,” that yesterday provided “proof” of his inferiority, have disappeared!
How can a Review site change on a dime?
A review site might even be owned by the marriage retreat companies themselves, continually favoring themselves as “excellent” to get more couples. These sites might also be owned by third party “SEO experts” who promise a steady flow of clients in exchange for a monthly or “per lead” fee. These strategies use “cookies.” The site puts cookies on your computer, and these fake sites get paid when the client clicks through.
It should be illegal, and we’ll see how the state ethics boards who regulate behavioral health providers respond when we pose the question about the ethics or legality of participating in and benefiting from a fake review site.
They don’t include any hard facts or verifiable data, but pretend to. It’s just open-ended statements that make claims like “Shines in every category…” or “Our top choice by a landslide.” In other words, if it sounds like a used car ad with statements like, “more satisfied customers…” it is a fake site. Pretty typical, right?
C’mon, will we be suckered in? Anytime you encounter a therapy review site that features their Top 10 Best Marriage Retreats, you know you have a phony site. They’ll claim to have “user reviews” that make them “unbiased.” They’ll throw 1-10 star “ratings” with vague criteria and claim standard clinical practices as ‘features,” such as “free phone consultation.” They offer unnamed “experts,” who supposedly rank the therapists. Again, an easy one to put together with little in the way of facts.
The therapists might hire someone, or anonymously write numerous “reviews” to help boost their standing and credibility. These are sometimes carefully crafted reviews to concentrate on specific keywords to optimize search terms to dominate search engines. They may create a lot of fake reviews in the beginning to help establish trust and credibility. To the untrained eye, a review like this may pass undetected. However, for someone with extensive knowledge of couples therapy, the anonymous fake “reviews” are easy to spot.
Now that you have an idea of how to spot and identify the most obvious offenders, you will search the Internet knowing one thing: Not every review of therapists you find online is true.
The only way to be 100% certain that a review can be trusted is if it is hosted on a site that doesn’t make money. You recognize it as trustworthy. AND IT DOESN’T USE RANKINGS.
Here are a couple of ways to check if you can trust a review:
Watch out for a “RAT” Sites that Rank, are Anonymous and ask you to Trust them without providing real objective criteria.
As a consumer, if you come across one of these fake review sites, there is not much you can do other than not click on any of the links contained in the site. That’s how one group of fakers make their money, by sending you to the clinician’s site through an affiliate link. Look very skeptically at any constant “Winner” who suddenly shows up across the internet. And reporting these kinds of fake clinical sites to your local ethics boards may also help. This is about behavioral mental health after all.
If enough people quit falling for the phonies, they will eventually disappear and find another way to make money. I hope.
In the meantime, we’ll be bringing this problem to the attention of respected agencies like State Ethics Boards, The Gottman Institute, International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT), APA, AAMFT, AASECT, and other related agencies.
My thanks to Dmitry for his discussion of web hosting fake review sites.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and is a board-certified sex therapist.