In 2018, Google was first confronted by media reports about why crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – often religious, non-medical organizations that do not provide abortion services or referrals for abortion services – often dominated Google Maps search results for “abortion clinics”. Now, four years later, the tech company appears to be making some moves to change the quality of these types of search results.
In response to a Bloomberg report that “Google Maps routinely misleads people when searching for abortion providers,” Google said it is “actively” looking to improve the relevance of search results for categories of businesses such as “abortion clinics.” It appears that currently, search results based on business categories are not as relevant as similar business results displayed after searching for specific business names.
The ongoing practice of displaying CPCs on the results of abortion clinics merits the spread of health misinformation aimed at Google. Women who claim they were misled by Google Maps say the CPCs they visited went to extreme lengths to prevent them from finding abortions. This included relaying “false information about the abortion procedure, including risks to life, risks to breast cancer, risks to mental health, risks to future fertility, and fetal pain.”
On average, a quarter of the results for anyone searching for US abortion clinics on Google Maps direct users to visit CPCs, and in about a quarter of the country, CPCs comprise more than half of the search results.
This is certainly a problem for those legitimately searching for safe and legal abortion services, as some states have banned abortions – reducing the number of available US abortion clinics. People seeking services outside of those states are expected to plan to travel farther to find services in less familiar areas, with many relying on Google Maps to find nearby businesses.
Because Google Maps search results often show similar businesses by business category when there are no relevant results nearby, experts say that because abortion access is restricted, CPCs can dominate results, putting more users at risk of encountering abortion misinformation. Worse, some users may travel long distances to visit businesses that do not actually provide abortion services. This problem is not necessarily limited to the category of business search. In some cases, the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation has shown that CPCs “knowingly” use the same or sometimes the exact same business names as existing abortion providers. This creates more confusion, even for Google Maps users who are searching for specific business names (not just conducting general “abortion clinic” searches).
Bloomberg says his analysis of the “abortion search results problem” is the most comprehensive to date. They collected data from 50 states, interviewed women who were directed to CPC by Google Maps after searching for “abortion clinics,” and fielded insights from “33 abortion care providers, reproductive justice, and digital rights experts.”
In response, Google told Bloomberg that it “works hard to surface business results that are relevant, accurate and help users find what they’re looking for,” claiming that it will immediately remove any business that misrepresents itself after learning of a violation of its policies. such behavior. The company has added “additional layers of verification” to confirm that businesses marked as “abortion clinics” on both Google Search and Maps “actually offer abortions.” One example is a Google policy update where advertisers must prove they provide abortion services in order to run ads with keywords “related to obtaining an abortion,” but Bloomberg noted that “it’s unclear whether Google will be able to apply that knowledge to its Maps results.”