Google’s algorithm is endangering access to Women on Web’s online abortion service
At least three times a year, Women on Web is forced to go through a stressful process that shapes our online strategy and work activities for months afterwards and has the power to paralyze or enhance our online abortion service. This process has nothing to do with the dedication of our staff nor with the number of individuals that we support in accessing safe abortions. Instead, it is an exercise powered by Google. It is called the Google Core Update, which is an update to Google’s algorithm that is rolled out several times a year to improve the quality and relevance of its search engine’s results.
The impact of Google Core Updates
Women on Web has been operating for over 15 years and our website has been re-evaluated numerous times by Google. However, it wasn’t until May 2020 that we fully grasped the power that these updates have over our service and the viability of our organization. During the May 2020 update, Women on Web lost 80% of its website traffic and as an abortion service that almost exclusively operates online, this update had a devastating impact on our operations. As a result, fewer people have been finding us on the Internet and we’ve seen a sharp decline in help requests to our service.
On November 17th 2021, Google’s most recent update started and once again it felt like the rug was pulled out from under us. Right away we started to see a sharp decline in our traffic, while we know very well that the demand for remote services and abortions didn’t decline; individuals needed our service on November 18th as much as they did the day before. The only thing that changed was the algorithm.
The thousands of women and pregnant people who access our service every year should be a sufficient testament of our expertise, trustworthiness and authority that should not be debated by the algorithm several times a year. Still, Google has the power to determine whether we operate a relevant service for people needing abortions, even in countries where our telemedicine abortion service remains the only safe and affordable way to end unwanted pregnancies.
Google’s algorithm does not represent the needs of women seeking abortions
To be clear, we understand why these updates exist and we are not protesting against strategies to ensure that search results correspond to the search intentions of people browsing the Internet. Instead, we are arguing that Google, through these updates, is not improving its search results or delivering relevant content for its users because people looking for safe abortions can no longer find our service. When Google de-ranks our website, the tech giant is not able to offer other more relevant websites on top of its search results simply because they don’t exist. Is the algorithm able to interpret the search intent of someone with an unwanted pregnancy living in a country with no access to abortions? Can the algorithm read the preferences of people looking for not just abortion care, but an online abortion service? We don’t think it can.
Women on Web’s online abortion service is unique and reaches some of the most remote regions in the world. The service has provided over 100,000 medical abortion services since 2005 and published over 20 scientific papers on the positive outcomes of the service. Access to our service and safe abortions should not be decided by algorithms and instead a vital service like ours should be protected from these updates. Google needs to become accountable for the damage these updates cause and acknowledge that its algorithms are not neutral. They are built and trained by humans with specific backgrounds, intentions and blind spots. These are people who are disconnected from the global realities of abortion rights and access, and are therefore incapable of making accurate and unbiased decisions for women and pregnant people needing abortion services.
Help us counter the Google Core Update
Our service is vital and needs to be visible. Please share our website and service within your networks and advocate for holding big tech responsible for protecting online access to essential services.
If you wish to donate and support our rebuilding efforts, please visit our website. For more details you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow our work on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & LinkedIn
- Venny Ala-Siurua, Executive Director of Women on Web