Seeking an abortion in the US is a notoriously complicated process. But it’s a process that may be being made even more complex by Google Maps.
According to a report by Gizmodo, in partnership with Damn Joan, when women search for abortion clinics in America they are shown the opposite – anti-abortion facilities feature heavily within the top results. This is no unhappy accident, however – it’s because crisis pregnancy centres have been tampering with search results, using keywords and the maps function.
Crisis pregnancy centres are pro-life, non-profit and usually faith-based facilities that divert women with unwanted pregnancies away from abortion. In the report, when the search term “Where can I get an abortion near me?” was used, crisis pregnancy centres were listed as abortion-clinic options in 18 out of 20 cities across the US.
In 2014, NARAL Pro-Choice America found that the search term “abortion clinics” led users to crisis pregnancy centres around 79 per cent of the time. The organisation reportedly pressured Google to stop accepting advertising from centres that deliberately aim to top search results where keywords include "abortion".
When women search for abortion clinics in America, they are shown the opposite – anti-abortion facilities feature heavily within the top results
Now, instead of buying adverts, pro-life centres are gaming the Google Maps ranking system, which relies on algorithms based on user input. Crisis centres can improve their rankings by entering business information and interacting with reviews. If anti-abortion reviewers give low ratings to abortion clinics and high ratings to crisis centres, for instance, this can alter an organisation's position in search results.
Google said its maps results are not impacted by ad sales or keywords in listings, in response to the report.
“We don’t share more information on how local rankings work to minimise people gaming the system,” Google communications manager Liz Davidoff told Gizmodo. “We strive for business results that are relevant, accurate and help users find what they’re looking for.”
Davidoff recommended users report problems with listings, and said that Google will be “looking into” why pregnancy crisis centres are being included in searches for abortions.
Gizmodo appears to have provided the why, however – let’s hope Google gets going on how it can be stopped.