Google points abortion-seekers toward anti-abortion clinics

2018-02-13 | San Jose Mercury News

Feb. 12--Women and girls using Google to find an abortion provider in the Bay Area may end up in the hands of an anti-abortion operation that doesn't terminate pregnancies and instead pushes clients to give birth.

Anti-abortion facilities are featured at or near the top in results for queries such as, "Where can I get an abortion near me?"

The serving up of anti-abortion results that are opposite to the actual goal of the search is most pronounced when a user goes to Google Maps after searching for an abortion provider.

From San Jose, for example, the search, "Abortion providers near me" produced results that put in the two top spots the San Jose clinics of Catholic-funded RealOptions Obria -- an organization that started out as the anti-abortion group Birth Choice and seeks to locate its facilities near Planned Parenthood clinics.

Planned Parenthood, which does provide abortions, came up at No. 3 on that search.

Searching for, "Where can I get an abortion near me?" delivered slightly different results: RealOptions at the first and third spots, with Planned Parenthood in between. For that search, RealOptions also came up at No. 4 in the non-Maps results for the Google search, while it occupied spots seven through nine in non-Maps results for the "Abortion providers near me" query.

RealOptions -- which did not immediately respond to a request for comment -- is what is commonly called a "crisis pregnancy center." These facilities typically advertise pregnancy services and counseling, and seek to divert girls and women away from abortion and toward adoption and parenthood.

RealOptions' two San Jose clinics -- it also has facilities in Mountain View and Union City -- are included in the "crisis pregnancy centers" list of the California ProLife Council.

That list also features the St. Juan Diego Women's Center and Birthright, anti-abortion operations that also surface fairly high up on Maps results for Google searches seeking abortion providers in or near San Jose.

St. Juan Women's Center executive director Christine Ibañez said her organization does not manipulate search results, though she was told by one prominent group that pushes girls and women toward giving birth that it gets into abortion seekers' search results by buying keywords from Google.

"They want women to have all the options available, so they do keyword purchases," Ibañez said.

Her organization may have shown up in search results for abortion providers because its website contains the word "abortion" in a sentence saying St. Juan doesn't perform them or refer people for them, she suggested.

St. Juan counsels women to "choose life" and supports them and their children if they do so, via a suite of services, Ibañez said.

Birthright did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Crisis pregnancy centers provide a range of services, with Juan Diego and Birthright offering counseling, baby clothes, pregnancy testing and adoption information, along with general life assistance.

RealOptions runs actual medical clinics, providing medical consultations, pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, prenatal care, hormone-based reversals of effects of the "abortion pill," and support services.

The search-results issue was identified by Gizmodo reporter Robin Marty, who tested the scope of the results problem.

"I contacted 20 people in cities and states across the U.S. to ask them to go to Google, either on desktop or on their phones, enter 'Where can I get an abortion near me?' and then click on the resulting map to see what happens in their locations," Marty wrote.

"In all but two (Little Rock, Arkansas and Queens, New York) crisis pregnancy centers were offered up as abortion clinic options whenever that sentence was entered."

Google, according to Marty, is getting gamed.

"Google itself offers a number of practices to improve a listing's rankings in the results, such as entering extensive business info, full contact info, photos, and responding to reviews -- as well as using their Google My Business suite of tools to maintain their profiles," according to Marty.

"Because of mostly unmonitored and unlimited user intervention, not every result is actually an abortion clinic, and many are actually trying to deceive potential patients into believing they are."

It is, however, unclear who would be gaming the Mountain View search giant's abortion-provider results, as such manipulations are undertaken with regard to a multitude of issues and aren't necessarily accomplished by those who may benefit directly from high placement in results. The organization reportedly buying keywords to get high placement in results for abortion-provider searches did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Google, confronted with Gizmodo's research, said it would investigate why crisis-pregnancy centers are showing up in results for searches seeking abortion providers, the tech website reported.

"We're looking into the issues you've flagged," a Google spokeswoman told Gizmodo.

"We strive for business results that are relevant, accurate and help users find what they're looking for."