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Web marketing is the new yellow pages, except that it isn’t as easy as calling the phone book company, ordering an ad and writing a check. On the current Web, the equivalent of the yellow pages is online local business listings. These listings are more varied than a simple yellow pages ad and have more ethical pitfalls surrounding them. Those pitfalls are navigable, though, and there are convenient tools to help you slowly but surely get your practice into all those digital phone books.
What’s the difference between an online local business listing and my website or my Psychology Today profile?
Your website is your own space to do with as you please. Your Psychology Today or GoodTherapy.org profiles aren’t local business listings, per se, but rather profiles of you as a professional. They are helpful, but they don’t fall in to the “local business listing” category.
Local business listings are profiles on sites that are built to help people find real-world services in specific locales. For example, tens of thousands of people use Yelp to help them find local services such as plumbers, dentists and, yes, mental health therapists, every day. If you own a private practice then you own a business, and your business can have a profile on Yelp (even if you didn’t ask for it.)
Other examples of local business directories are Google+ Local, Yahoo Local, Bing Local and a whole host of others. At the end of this article, I’ll point you to a handy resource to help you control your listing in them.
Listings in local business directories are a huge part of getting your practice in to local search results on Google and Bing, which are a significant part of making your online practice marketing successful.
You mentioned “ethical pitfalls?” What are they?
All of these business listing sites offer space for online reviews. In some cases, such as Yelp, online reviews are their main reason for being. There are a number of ethical problems for us around online reviews. I’ll refer you to Dr. Keely Kolmes’ free articles for deeper elaboration. The main problem I want to point out here is our ethical prohibition on soliciting testimonials from clients:
Counselors who use testimonials do not solicit them from current clients nor former clients nor any other persons who may be vulnerable to undue influence.
ACA Code of Ethics, 2014, C.3.b
Social workers should not engage in solicitation of testimonial endorsements (including solicitation of consent to use a client’s prior statement as a testimonial endorsement) from current clients or from other people who, because of their particular circumstances, are vulnerable to undue influence.
NASW Code of Ethics, 2017, 4.07.b
Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from current therapy clients/patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence.
Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 2010, 5.05
So we can’t solicit online reviews from clients. That much is clear. What may be less clear — but has been elucidated by several experts — is that simply having a listing on a site that is primarily oriented on business reviews, such as Yelp, can appear to be a solicitation for reviews or, at the very least, give clients a mistaken impression that reviewing their therapist is an activity that is welcomed and unlikely to have undesired consequences.
This would imply that we should avoid these business listing services for ethical reasons. However, it isn’t that easy. Review-oriented sites may generate profiles for you automatically. Or if someone chooses to write a review of your practice, a profile about you may be created without your involvement. What’s more, another ethical mandate comes in to play — this time about accurate representation of our professional selves:
When feasible, counselors make reasonable efforts to ensure that statements made by others about them or about the counseling profession are accurate.
ACA Code of Ethics, 2014, C.3.c
Social workers should ensure that their representations to clients, agencies, and the public of professional qualifications, credentials, education, competence, affiliations, services provided, or results to be achieved are accurate. Social workers should claim only those relevant professional credentials they actually possess and take steps to correct any inaccuracies or misrepresentations of their credentials by others.
NASW Code of Ethics, 2017, 4.06.c
Psychologists do not knowingly make public statements that are false, deceptive or fraudulent concerning their research, practice or other work activities or those of persons or organizations with which they are affiliated.
Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 2010, 5.01
Counselors and social workers, and psychologists to a certain extent, have a bit of a tall order under these codes. We are asked to not only represent ourselves accurately but also to take action to try to correct inaccurate statements about our professional selves that are made by others.
In the past, I have found automatically generated online profiles for my practice that have claimed the following untrue things:
- Roy is a Psychiatrist (I’m actually a counselor)
- Roy is a Psychologist
- Roy practices in Portland, Maine (I’m in Portland, Oregon)
Luckily, those inaccuracies are pretty tame. It could be much worse. The good news is that for most of these sites, we as the business owners have the option to take control of our profiles and gain some level of control over what descriptive content goes in to them. Proactively taking control of our business profiles on local business listing websites, including those sites that are primarily oriented on reviews, is probably the best way to both keep on top of our ethical needs and represent ourselves and our practices well.
So our ethics imply we should be wary of review sites, but they also imply we should get listed on them?
It is a bit of a paradox. We are unlikely to be able to avoid having a profile on review sites forever. To have some control over what goes on them, and reduce the risks of harm to clients that can occur around them, we can take control of our business profiles and work on making them as ethically appropriate as we can. For example, check out Dr. Keely Kolmes’ Yelp profile and then also check out mine:
- Dr. Kolmes’ Yelp Profile
- Roy’s Yelp Profile (Basically of copy of Dr Kolmes’ profile, for which she gives permission)
Note that some space is devoted to our businesses, but so is ample space devoted to creating messaging for clients that communicates clinical and ethical implications around their use of the profile. In that messaging, we ask clients to forego leaving a review and communicate with us directly instead. Some sites, such as Google+ Local, give you less space to work with, but we do what we can.
A social media policy would also assist in reducing risks of boundary crossings and confidentiality breaches through inappropriate online reviews.
So getting my practice listed on local business listings helps me manage professional boundary and confidentiality risks while also marketing my practice?
Yes! So long as you manage and write up your online profiles with the interests of clients in mind, you can accomplish both things.
There are even more positive benefits, though. Getting your practice accurately listed online, with appropriate content that helps guide clients through the maze that is professional boundaries on the Web, expands your professional Web presence. Each profile listing is another page that can come up when a client or potential client Googles your name. Ethical, accurate information looks professional and is useful, and is a way of extending your professional, therapeutic presence in to your Web presence.
So how does this help my website come up on Google?
Google and Bing both have a feature called “local search.” If you look for a local service, such as “Portland Counselor,” you’ll get a mix of the usual search results you’re used to seeing and some special search results that contain address information and a map next to those results.
The local search results are very valuable to be in, because they are high on the search result page and stand out clearly with all their extra information. The following factors all contribute to getting listed in those local search results:
- Having address and phone number info on your website. It helps if you have it on multiple pages.
- Having your business listed in local business listings. For Google, it especially helps to have a Google+ Local listing. For Bing, it especially helps to have a Bing Local listing.
- Having a lot of online reviews.
That last one is a modern marketing conundrum. Marketing consultants will encourage you to ask your clients to review you because it’s so valuable for your online marketing, but that doesn’t jibe well with our ethics.
It’s worth noting that the ethics codes don’t restrict you from asking colleagues and mentors for reviews. However, I urge you to be mindful of the need for accurate representation and of how clients may perceive these reviews. I recommend that reviews from colleagues should announce the reviewer’s relationship with you clearly and reiterate that clients are asked to carefully consider whether or not they wish to leave a review themselves.
If you’d like to dig deeper into this aspect of your Web presence, here are a couple of articles I found useful. Keep your ethics filter on as you read them, and they should prove useful: