900,000 Americans Tell Google They Want to Try, Buy, or Quit Heroin Every Year

I use ad data to try to save their lives

Patrick Berlinquette
Published in
7 min readDec 9, 2019


An illuminated “G” hangs on the wall.
Photo: Tobias Schawrz/AFP/Getty Images

A number of the kids I graduated high school with are dead, in jail, or in rehab from heroin.

I’m friends on Facebook with those who stopped using. They post about sober anniversaries, featuring pics of Narcotics Anonymous coins in upturned palms. And I notice when they stop posting. It means they’re no longer incentivized to share the current version of themselves, which usually means they’re back to using.

Many relapsed addicts go dark on social media, and turn to a place where they can share things they don’t want anyone to know: Google.

Every year, approximately 900,000 Americans tell Google they want to use, try, buy, or quit heroin.

I know this because I serve ads on Google to them. I buy keywords I imagine they might type into the search box. When my keywords match with their searches, my ad shows up as their first result on Google. When they click the ad, their ad click data — which includes the exact words they type into Google — passes into my system.

Here are some word-for-word searches addicts Googled before clicking the ads:

I run five different ads to five different groups:

  • People who tell Google they’re going to try heroin for the first time (including searchers looking to prepare or cook heroin, and those wanting to make the leap from pills to intravenous use).
  • People who ask Google where they can buy heroin (including people traveling to new cities where they have no dealer connections).
  • People asking Google about the current percentages of fentanyl in local heroin (Fentanyl is a deadly synthetic opioid, and it is fatal in small doses).
  • People asking Google how heroin will make them feel.
  • Other current users (including those looking to stop using, get help through withdrawals, or troubleshoot a collapsed vein or abscess).

Each group sees a different ad. The ad clicker is directed to my website, which contains a phone number for a substance abuse hotline. From there, the data passes to Google, and Google…



Patrick Berlinquette

Founder of a NY search ad agency (like we need another). Finding humor in ad tech’s depravity. Writings @ NY Times.