Navigating anti-abortion online strategy
Online for Life is another media group that uses a similar technique. The website is run by the Texas-based Media Revolution Ministries, which was founded by CEO Brian Fisher in 2009. Fisher would not return our request for comment, but he explains Online for Life’s general strategy in a video uploaded to YouTube in April 2011:
There are over 6 million Internet searches each and every month in the United States alone for the word “abortion” and other related keywords. This is a problem of epidemic proportions, and Online for Life is here to meet that need. We intercept them when they’re searching for abortion information, and instead we direct them to pro-life pregnancy centers in their area where they’re counseled for life.
Ashley Lopez, writing at our sister site The Florida Independent, reported last fall that at a Care Net conference in Orlando, Fla., Care Net President Melinda Delahoyde praised online interception as a way to appeal to “abortion-minded” women. Delahoyde claimed that the busiest CPCs were only seeing about 5 percent of “abortion-minded” women.
Care Net would not respond to requests for comment and would not confirm whether it currently is advertising on Google using abortion-related keywords; however, there is evidence that Care Net has employed Google ads.
A 2008 job application ad for an administrative assistant (PDF) lists as one of the job duties “maintain and manage Google AdWords account.” And a Care Net affiliate in the Chicago area published a “Google Ads Budget Report” in August 2011, which reveals that between Feb. 15 and May 10, 2011, the affiliate’s Google ads received 2,583 clicks at a total cost of about $12,350, compared with 1,367 between Nov. 23, 2010, and Feb. 14, 2011, at a total cost of $5,774.65.
Examples of keywords used by the affiliate, according to the report, include:
- abortion facts
- abortion pill
- abortion clinics
- get abortion
- abortion help
- terminate pregnancy
- get an abortion
- want an abortion
One thing that was noticeable in TAI’s searches was how our Google map results changed after the Siri scandal broke.
In early December, just a few days after the Abortioneers bloggers discovered Siri’s proclivity for CPCs over abortion clinics, a Google search using the word “abortion” produced seven Google Map results for locations related to my word search. Three of them were anti-abortion pregnancy centers in Maryland. The following month, the same “abortion” search from the same location pulled up just one anti-abortion map search, and it wasn’t to a CPC, but to the website for the anti-abortion rights group Priests for Life.
A Google spokesperson, who did not want to be named for this story, would not directly respond to questions about the sudden change in our searches or about anti-abortion search strategies in general, but did note that Google takes action when websites are found to be violating its policies. Google has a general policing policy when it comes to websites that use devious practices to manipulate searches and can, with little notice, demote a site’s page rankings, as happened last year with J.C. Penney, after it was caught by The New York Times using search optimization methods that violate Google’s policy.
The spokesperson also said that search ad results vary depending on a person’s location (TAI offices are based in Washington, D.C.) and on who is winning the ad-bidding war that month.
“In search advertising, marketers bid on key words in a continuous, dynamic auction,” the spokesperson wrote in an email statement. “When a consumer searches for any of the words, the marketer’s ad appears on the search results page, depending on the amount the company bids and the ad’s relevancy to a particular search.”
Google actually has specific ad policies on the word “abortion”: It prohibits ads with violent language or gruesome imagery. And in some countries, the company will not even allow ads for abortions or related services.
“When we find ads which violate our policies, we investigate and remove them if appropriate,” the spokesperson said. “Google is constantly updating its ads policies to comply with local law.”
NARAL vs. the CPCs
America’s leading abortion-rights policy group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, has for years tried to expose what it believes to be unethical tactics of crisis pregnancy centers. NARAL has produced about 10 state-based reports detailing specific examples of coercion and deception, and part of that deception is online strategy.
“When we talk about women’s access to abortion, this is one of the top priorities,” NARAL communications director Ted Miller told TAI.
Last year, NARAL sent a letter signed by more than 66,000 people to the chief executives of Superpages.com and Yellowpages.com calling on these sites to enforce their policies against misleading advertisements. As a result, YellowPages.com “re-categorized or removed” 96 percent of the problematic anti-abortion sites, said NARAL assistant communications director Samantha Gordon.
For the past five years NARAL has lobbied for federal and state legislation to prevent CPCs from advertising – online and off – for services they don’t provide and as a way to lure women wanting abortions inside their doors.
One such bill on NARAL’s wish list is the federal “Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Service Act,” first introduced In 2007 by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). The measure, which has been reintroduced to Congress every year since, would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to penalize organizations that falsely advertise as resources for abortion services when they do not offer such services. To date, the bill has 39 co-sponsors in the House and three in the Senate.
Miller said he believes the Siri scandal helped educate the public on the some of the practices CPCs employ, and he hopes the increased awareness will result in an increase in sponsorship on the Stop Deceptive Advertising bill. After NARAL President Nancy Keenan posted an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook on NARAL’s website, traffic to NARAL’s traffic increased 600 percent, he said.
As Miller puts it, the anti-abortion deception strategy poses two main problems: 1) advertising for services they don’t provide, i.e., violating the “truth in advertising” code American businesses are supposed to abide by and 2) misleading the public by manipulating information searches. He told TAI that NARAL is working on new strategy to deal specifically with how CPCs advertise and strategize on the web, though he would not be specific about plans.
Allyson Kapin — a founding partner of the Rad Campaign, a D.C.-based online strategy firm — told TAI that even if a federal bill were passed demanding truth in advertising from CPCs, it will still be a few years before our legal system learns how to deal with false advertising on the Internet.
“It’s really tricky with Internet law,” Kapin said. “Judges are still relying on old laws and applying [telephone loopholes to Internet cases].”
As an example, she noted a legal case last December in which a harassment charge was thrown out on free speech grounds because the stalking and harassment was happening via Twitter.
“In the next few* years, hopefully Internet laws will be more clearly defined to benefit people rather than corporations,” she said.
*Correction: Allyson Kapin’s quote was corrected to say “few,” not “10.”
Image: Screenshot of an Online for Life instructional YouTube video