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Google Got More Than $10 Million for Ads That Misled People Seeking Abortions

5 minute read

Google has directed hundreds of thousands of people searching for information about abortions and pregnancy in the U.S. to the websites of misleading, fake clinics that don’t actually provide abortion or medical services—and made millions of dollars in the process, a new study says.

A report published Thursday from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a non-profit that researches misinformation, found that Google’s search engine directs users who search terms related to abortion towards paid advertisements from so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which do not provide the procedure and instead aim to prevent people from undergoing it.

“This report demonstrates the scale of deceptive advertising by anti-choice groups, fake healthcare clinics and the marketing infrastructure that underpins the spread of their medical misinformation, in a post-Dobbs digital environment,” CCDH’s CEO Imran Ahmed said in the report’s introduction.

Rise of crisis pregnancy centers

Anti-abortion centers advertised as “crisis pregnancy centers” have long existed, but have continued to grow their reach in the U.S. following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. In 2022, they outnumbered actual abortion clinics in the U.S. 3 to 1.

Read more: The Fall of Roe v. Wade Has Permanently Changed the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Americans make an estimated 102 million searches for queries related to abortion each year, but researchers say Google’s advertising has played a key part in misleading abortion seekers by directing users towards paid ads that appear at the top of the page and are nearly identical to organic search results. A separate study by Varn, a digital marketing agency, last year found that up to 68% of users are unable to distinguish ads from organic search results. The CCDH researchers noted that one marketing firm that helped anti-choice organizations misdirect “abortion-determined” people to fake clinics stated that Google was the top source of referrals.

Crisis pregnancy centers pay the search engine to place ads with key search queries, such as “abortion clinics near me”; 71% of clinics identified in the study promoted deceptive techniques meant to mislead abortion seekers, advancing false claims that abortions are linked to cancer and other diseases.

Profiting from misinformation

Google, which generates around $200 billion from ad sales annually, earned more than $10 million in two years from deceptive ads from fake abortion clinics, the study says. However, CCDH says the study highlights the reach Google is bringing to anti-choice campaigns that are willing to pay.

We require any organization that wants to advertise to people seeking information about abortion services to be certified and clearly disclose whether they do or do not offer abortions,” Google told TIME in an emailed statement. “We do not allow ads promoting abortion reversal treatments and we also prohibit advertisers from misleading people about the services they offer. We remove or block ads that violate these policies.”

Using the analytics tool Semrush, researchers identified 188 “fake clinic websites” that placed ads on Google Search during the past two years, the majority of which targeted users searching for abortion-related keywords or phrases. Fake clinics spent $10.2 million on Google Search ads between March 1, 2021 and February 28, 2023, targeting over 15,000 queries related to abortion in total, including queries as specific as “telehealth abortion pill Texas” and “how much is an abortion in California.”

Read more: If Someone You Love Has an Abortion, Give Them a Gift

Search results for “abortion pill,” “abortion clinic,” and “planned parenthood,” were all populated by ads from crisis clinics, the report said, with clinics in states where abortion is legal spending two times as much as those in states with bans.

The study noted that one marketing firm, for example, helped fake clinics access Google’s Ad Grant scheme, a program that offers non-profit organizations up to $10,000 a month in free ad credits. Google told TIME that the program “does not distinguish between advertisers promoting pro-choice or pro-life messages” but that it requires all advertisers promoting ads that target abortion-related searches to complete a certification program and prominently discloses whether they do or do not provide abortions in their ad.

Lack of regulation

In September 2021, Google came under fire after another CCDH report detailed how the company was running advertisements for abortion “reversal” pills. Yet, it continued to accept ads for fake clinic websites promoting the procedure, earning an estimated $2.6 million in ad revenue, CCDH says. And last year Google faced calls from Congressional Democrats to crack down on its role in directing users to anti-abortion facilities.

In response to the CCDH report released on Thursday, Google told TIME it does not allow for abortion reversal pill advertisements because the treatment isn’t approved by the FDA, and that the company took “enforcement action” on content violating this policy.

CCDH has proposed that Google take action to create more transparency around the practice by forcing fake clinics to include clear disclaimers on their ads and websites, and by cracking down on deceptive sites that receive Ad Grants.

“Google and the anti-choice movement must not be allowed to continue to betray Americans seeking reproductive healthcare advice and services,” Ahmed said. “The first step is to dismantle the vast, powerful digital advertising architecture that has been so effectively weaponized to deprive them of their rights.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com