The Rise and Fall of the Narconon Internet Marketing Empire (Part 3)

If you missed the earlier segments of this series, see Part 1 or Part 2.

In 2003, Google changed it’s search algorithm with an update code-named “Florida”. Essentially, it would no longer consider “keyword stuffing” to be an accurate determination of rank. In many cases, websites simply sank in ranking. In other cases, Google sent out letters notifying website owners that they were completely de-listed and removed from any possibility of Google ranking. Ironically, many Narconon based websites were de-ranked, delisted, or in Scientology terms “disconnected from as being unethical” by Google itself.

Many FSMs that were doing exceptionally well shut down almost overnight. Some tried to “sell off” their delisted websites to unsuspecting graduates or staff members who thought they might be at least as successful if they bought them. Average cost was $10,000 for these sites. Only after purchasing them did people quickly realize they were now worthless due to the Google updates.

Paid vs. Organic Advertising
At this point in time, if you were a drug rehab and wanted to advertise on the internet, Google had two primary types of search ranking: Organic listings, and Paid Advertising.

Organic listings:
Organic listings are websites that Google determines as being a naturally appropriate search result for a particular keyword. Google then began to focus on “Page Rank” in order to determine what were the best pages to list for a search. In the past, the number of times a keyword was used on a page had a high relevance. Google tried to come up with a fair way of determining page rank. They took a few things into consideration: Keyword density in a page, meta tags within a page, number of times another website links to you, and some other elements. Organic listings don’t cost anything if someone clicks the link, and have always been the goal for any company in terms of the web. The downside of trying to compete organically is that it is highly competitive and can take months to take effect. In addition, most people don’t understand how it’s done and feel forced to pay thousands of dollars to SEO experts to try to achieve an edge in an ever competing industry.
Paid Advertising:
If you didn’t have the time or knowledge to get your website up to the top listings, there came a way for companies to immediately come to the top listings if they were willing to pay a fee for it. Essentially, a small company known as Overture began contracting with Google as a way to get advertisers who didn’t have the ability to organically generate high rankings to bid on ranking and be shown in a top position. Overture eventually gave way to what is currently known as “Google Adwords”. Google puts paid searches to the top and right side of organic listings. If you click on any of them, it costs the advertiser money. Paid advertising is extremely expensive.

Many FSMs went away, and although Narconon continued to offer FSM fees and encourage graduates to create referral networks and websites, it was no longer so easy. In order to generate rank for a website, it used to be as simple as buying or building a single small website that was keyword-stuffed, and you probably wouldn’t make it with just one, but it was still possible. Here are some of the various internet strategies that people used to manipulate Google Organic Search results. In reality, there are probably hundreds of variations, but these are some basics. Some are considered “White Hat” or ethical, others are considered “Black Hat” or cheating, whereas many fall into the “Grey Hat” category or pushing the boundaries.

Link Farms:
Websites that only have links on them, pushing rank to those sites it links to.
Link Networks:
Websites that only serve to link back to a primary site, giving the primary site rank.
Shared Link Networks:
Link exchanges, i.e., I link to you, you link back to me.
Blog Networks:
Blog sites that all link back to a primary site, giving the primary site rank.
Blog Comment Spamming:
Programs or scripts that search and post pre-written blog comments on thousands of sites, and always include a link back to the site.
Paid Links:
Sites that have high ranking and sell the ability to put a website link on them.
Social Networks:
Using comments on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to link to a website.
Press Releases and Article Spamming:
Articles or Press Releases with website links, blasted out to hundreds or thousands of various sites.
Directory Spamming:
Links on thousands of directories, producing thousands of sites that link back.

These days, many of these things don’t really work anymore. Google continues to update their algorithm a few times a year. I’m simply including them because various parties within the Narconon network continued to do much of the above to try to maintain web search rank for primary sites. However, only a small handful of FSMs were able to keep up and maintain good ranking.

Up until about 2008, Narconon continued to dominate the internet and grow. Part of this was due to internet marketing, but a large portion was due to their fraudulent sales tactics, boasting of their success rates, and capitalizing on people’s frustration with success rates in traditional programs.

However, organic ranking continued (and continues) to be more difficult to maintain. By 2008, many traditional local rehabs were suffering because they were losing business to facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Treatment centers that would have never considered competing nationally were now forced to. So they turned to the internet, many of them hiring professional SEO companies in hopes that it would increase their ability to bring in clients. So websites got built. And competition on the web began to increase.

To offset this competition, Narconon began to focus more energy into the Paid Search network. In the early days of internet marketing, the cost to bid on keywords related to drug rehab searches ran anywhere from $.01 per click (for long tail keywords with little competition such as “non 12-step rehab in Boise, Idaho”) up to $20.00 per click for more competitive national keywords such as “drug rehab”.

Treatment centers ideally should focus on the success of the client.  But drug rehabs are also businesses.  And if we wander long enough inside even the best of drug rehabs, past the dedicated staff who believe in helping others–eventually we will find another group, place or area…

The Sales and Marketing Floor of a drug rehab.

Read Part 4 of
The Rise and Fall of the Narconon Internet Marketing Empire.