How Google Maps Leads Women Seeking Abortions Astray

If you’re searching for abortion care, be careful using
Google Maps—you might end up at a crisis pregnancy center
instead of a legit clinic. These facilities, where staff
pressures clients to “choose life,” have been gaming results at
the local level using keywords and the maps function. Gizmodo
and Damn Joan have partnered to investigate; read what it’s
like to
visit a crisis pregnancy center
on their site, and read
about what happens when you search for abortion care in Google
Maps below.
 

If you are pregnant and looking for an abortion clinic in
Jackson, Mississippi, you might initially think you are in
luck. A quick trip to Google on your phone and typing in,
“Where can I get an abortion near me?” brings up a Google map
with eight different pins, all located within 10 miles of your
location.

It’s once you click on the map itself and see the
list—including their names, distances from you and customer
reviews—that you learn that your real choices are far, far
fewer. Your first result is Birthright of Jackson, a local
crisis pregnancy center [CPC] that doesn’t do terminations. The
third result is Center for Pregnancy Choices, which is the same
story. The fourth result is CPC Fondren, yet another crisis
pregnancy center. The fifth is Dr. Beverly McMillan,
a former abortion provider turned anti-abortion activist
,
and whose
late husband
was a frequent protester on the sidewalks in
front Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the only actual place
in the listings (or in the state itself) where a person can
actually obtain a legal abortion. That’s better than usual,
said Derenda Hancock, a clinic escort for JWHO. “In the past
JWHO was at the bottom of the list, like eight CPC’s and then
us,” she said. “Nice to know the only abortion clinic in the
state has made it to the top five!”

Gaming the system

Google has a complicated relationship with crisis pregnancy
centers.
In 2014
, NARAL Pro-Choice America pressured Google to stop
accepting advertising for the entities—which are often
religiously affiliated, do not always have licensed medical
staff on site and never provide abortions or refer patients to
clinics that do—saying that the advertisements violated
Google’s service terms against “misleading, inaccurate and
deceitful ads.”

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers were purchasing advertising on
Google in order to insert links to their own clinics as top
results based on keyword searches for terms involving abortion.
The ads would be marked with a small “ad” next to them to show
that they were paid results, but otherwise looked like organic
results. They also often used ambiguous phrases like “Think you
are pregnant? Get answers,” or “Considering abortion?” to lead
people to click on them and draw them away from abortion
providers and to their anti-abortion pregnancy centers instead.
According to NARAL’s research, using the search engine to find
“abortion clinics” led users to a crisis pregnancy center about
79 percent of the time, creating mass confusion considering the
CPC’s often deliberate use of names similar to existing
abortion clinics. Google agreed to remove the ads, but that
just left CPC’s looking for an alternative way to promote
themselves online and reach out to their “abortion-vulnerable
clients, as they refer to pregnant people seeking terminations.

Enter the Google Maps function, an increasingly popular way for
internet searchers to discover goods, services, and other
nearby necessities. With business and non-profit listings that
can be created by anyone and a public ratings system open to
all, this partially crowd-sourced list of results should offer
the best variety of options when it comes to searching for
anything local.

But when it comes to abortion clinics, it simply doesn’t work.
To test, I entered “Where can I get an abortion?” into the
Google and then clicked on the map to view all of its results
within five miles of my home in Minneapolis. The first was an
ad for Planned Parenthood. The second—which was both the
closest and the highest ranking result—was “Abortion Advice,”
listed as a “Women’s Health Clinic,” and which on its website
offers a “Free Pre-Termination appointment,” all implying
either it offers or at least refers for legal abortion care.

I am by no means alone, either. 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. 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.

“Like playing Whack-a-Mole”

Under normal circumstances, a system that relies mostly on user
input should be an accurate way to draw results on Google Maps.
After all, there is no advantage to a steakhouse trying to
convince someone looking specifically for vegetarian food to
come eat at their restaurant—all you would get are bad reviews
and lower sales numbers.

But crisis pregnancy centers don’t have a financial dependence
on their “customers.” Because their patient base relies
primarily on those who are intending to go to abortion clinics
to end their pregnancies, it is essential for them to insert
themselves into those clinic searches in order to find targets.
CPCs that aren’t already in the system are using “add a missing
place” to insert their own listings to the pool. 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.

A pregnant person looking for an abortion clinic is most likely
going to turn on the computer, open up Google, type in “Where
can I get an abortion?” and see a long list of results on the
page, some far more relevant than others. The Maps section
offers a simple way to sort through all of the information—how
far away a clinic is, when it is open, and how highly it is
rated by others who have used it—all in one easy glance.

However, because of mostly unmonitored and unlimited user
intervention, not every result is actually an abortion clinic,
and many are actually trying to decieve potential patients into
believing they are. Some categorize themselves as “Women’s
Health Centers,” something that some abortion clinics do as
well, making them impossible to separate from actual medical
abortion providers. Others more truthfully list themselves as
“Pregnancy Centers” but the category designation is small and
easily overlooked, and with names like “Choices” and “Women’s
Care” it becomes increasingly hard to tell them apart. The star
rating system offers another way to create a more visible CPC
and a less visible abortion clinic, with abortion opponents
offering two and one star reviews for local abortion providers,
and writing three and four star reviews for the pregnancy care
centers, often while deliberately avoiding mentioning abortion
is not included in their services.

The ability for individuals to manipulate results can actually
create a crisis for abortion access in some areas of the
country. Toledo, Ohio is home to the last remaining clinic in
Western Ohio, but searching “Where can I get an abortion near
me?” in Google and bringing up the resulting map of that area
brings three results—and only the third one is Capital Care
Network, the actual abortion clinic. What is even more
difficult for those who are seeking a termination is that
according to Kristin Hady, the escort coordinator at the
clinic, someone keeps editing the clinic details to say that
the clinic has been closed.

“We often have to go and edit the Google listing that the
clinic is open, as well, because it seems they will submit that
the clinic has closed for good,” said Hady. “Depending on what
browser clients use to view Capital Care and in which devices,
they are still sometimes told it is closed for good. It is very
confusing and kind of like playing Whack-a-Mole.”

Can Google stop the abuse?

According to Google Communications Manager Liz Davidoff, Google
Maps results are algorithm-based and not impacted by ad sales
or keywords in listings. “We don’t share more information on
how local rankings work to minimize people gaming the system,”
Davidoff said via email. If a user discovers an issue with a
listing she said they can report it by clicking “send feedback”
and then “report a problem” from desktop maps, but that route
only works if you are on Google Maps itself, not a map created
after doing a search in the Google browser. Even if it were
more accessible, it is unclear how many patients would be
inclined to report having been misled while still in the midst
of trying to obtain an actual abortion.

After being presented with the results from the searches,
Google agreed to investigate why the CPCs are being included in
the abortion search queries. “We’re looking into the issues
you’ve flagged,” Davidoff said in a statement. “We strive for
business results that are relevant, accurate and help users
find what they’re looking for.” But until Google can close
their loopholes, abortion opponents will continue to manipulate
and game the search results algorithm system. And it is the
people struggling to find a place to easily and legally end a
pregnancy who remain the ultimate losers.

Robin Marty is a freelance writer focused on abortion
legislation, clinic access, and anti-abortion movement history.
Her articles have appeared in Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone,
Politico, Ms. Magazine and other publications.

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