A new study by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reveals that Google has made about $10 million over the past two years from advertisements that misdirect users seeking abortion services to so-called ‘pregnancy crisis centres’ that do not offer legitimate care.
According to the report, the anti-choice organisations paid to advertise these centres alongside genuine search results and hundreds of thousands of users may have been reached and potentially misled by these search results.
The CCDH used the analytics tool Semrush to estimate the revenue generated by Google from such advertisers between March 2021 and February 2023. It argues that Google’s lack of enforcement against these groups has allowed a multimillion-dollar “cottage industry” of anti-abortion marketing firms to thrive, providing promotional materials and websites to crisis pregnancy centres.
“This is fundamentally about Google permitting extremely deceptive behaviour and doing very little to actually ensure that people are informed,” Imran Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of the CCDH, told The Guardian
Crisis pregnancy centres have been labelled as unethical by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, as they pose as legitimate reproductive healthcare clinics but actually aim to discourage individuals from accessing abortion services. In the United States, these centres outnumber actual abortion clinics three to one, with approximately 2,600 operating worldwide.
Google Search serves as a primary source of information on abortion, with an estimated 102 million annual searches related to the topic in the United States. The study found that Google Search has become the top referral source for crisis pregnancy centres, surpassing word-of-mouth recommendations. The CCDH study discovered that these centres pay for advertisements to appear in search results for more than 15,000 different abortion-related queries. Additionally, 71% of the identified clinics used deceptive advertising tactics, spreading false claims linking abortion to cancer and other diseases.
Google’s policies require organizations advertising abortion services to be certified and disclose whether they offer abortions. While Google took action against violating advertisements identified in the CCDH’s 2022 report, it found that the advertisers did not breach its policies. Advertisers appearing under abortion-specific search queries (like ‘abortions near me’) must disclose their services, but those appearing under more general terms (for instance ‘planned parenthood’) do not need to do so.
Critics argue that even when advertisers disclose whether they provide abortions, it is often overlooked, especially if the associated websites do not make their intentions clear. The CCDH study found that 38% of crisis pregnancy centre websites failed to carry any disclaimer on their home pages indicating that they do not offer abortions.
Furthermore, the study reveals that despite Google’s pledge to ban advertisements for ‘abortion pill reversal’ treatments, 40% of crisis pregnancy centres advertising on the platform also promoted this unproven procedure. The study estimates that Google earned $2.6 million in search advertising revenue from websites promoting the controversial treatment.
The CCDH study highlights the loopholes exploited by anti-abortion advocates on Google and the company’s failure to enforce its policies effectively. This has allowed a multi-million dollar fake clinic industry to flourish, deceiving and misdirecting individuals seeking access to abortion clinics. Marketing agencies like Choose Life Marketing, RankMonsters and iRapture have launched numerous crisis pregnancy clinic websites in recent years, offering misleading narratives and branding. They facilitate obtaining web addresses with misleading healthcare-related terms and create custom Google ad campaigns to dissuade those considering abortion.