In 2018, Google was first confronted with media reports investigating why crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – often religious, non-medical organizations that do not provide abortion services or referrals for abortion services – often dominate Google Maps search results. for “abortion clinics”. Now, four years later, the tech company appears to be making some moves to potentially change the quality of these types of search results.
In response to a Bloomberg report that “Google Maps routinely misleads people looking for abortion providers,” Google says it is “actively” looking to improve the search results relevance of business categories such as “abortion clinics “. It appears that currently, search results based on business categories are not as relevant as similar business results displayed after searches for specific business names.
The question Google is addressing is whether its continued practice of displaying CPCs in results for abortion clinics qualifies as spreading health misinformation. Women who claim they were misled by Google Maps say the CPCs they visited went to extremes to dissuade them from seeking an abortion. This included broadcasting “misinformation about the abortion procedure, including risk to life, risk of breast cancer, risk to mental health, risk 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 make up more than half of the search results.
This is obviously a problem for those who validly seek safe and legal abortion services, as several states have banned abortion – reducing the number of available abortion clinics in the US. It is expected that people seeking services outside of these states will plan to travel further to find services in areas that are less well-known, with many relying on Google Maps to find the nearest businesses.
Because Google Maps search results by business category often show similar businesses instead of showing when there are no relevant results nearby, experts say that since abortion access is limited, 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 business research category. In some cases, the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation has shown that CPCs “intentionally” use similar or sometimes the exact same business names as existing abortion providers. This contributes to additional confusion, even for Google Maps users looking for specific business names (not just performing general “abortion clinic” searches).
Bloomberg says their analysis of the “abortion search results problem” is the most comprehensive yet publicly conducted. They collected data from 50 states, interviewed women who were directed to CPCs from Google Maps after searching for “abortion clinics,” and found insights from “33 abortion care providers, reproductive justice, and digital rights experts.”
In response, Google told Bloomberg that it “works hard to highlight business results that are relevant, accurate and help users find what they’re looking for,” claiming it will quickly remove any business that misrepresents itself. upon learning of a violation of its policies against such conduct. The company also says it has added “additional layers of verification” to confirm that businesses listed as “abortion clinics” on both Google Search and Maps “actually provide abortions.” One example is an update to Google’s policy where advertisers must prove they offer abortion services in order to show ads with keywords “related to getting an abortion,” but Bloomberg notes that “it’s unclear whether Google would be able to apply that knowledge to the results of his maps.”