Results of Google's Core Update on Access to Abortion

On May 4th, Google released the results of its second Core Update. Women on Web saw a 90% drop in the website’s traffic as a result, a massive loss by comparison to previous search updates. Google assures the updates are meant to be neutral, but are they? 

 

Blog by Erin Hassard*

Earlier this month, Google released the results of its second core update since January, a standard procedure that occurs several times a year and makes “significant, broad changes” to search algorithms, according to Google’s Central Blog. These core updates are done in order to ensure the content that appears when you plug in a Google search is relevant and accurate.  According to the blog, these changes are made merely to improve how their systems assess content and are not meant to target any one sector or website.    

However, for services such as Women on Web, these so-called neutral updates evidently pose a threat to accessibility for certain groups. Women on Web, an organization that assists over 60,000 women worldwide gain access to safe telemedical abortion that otherwise would not be available to them, saw a 90% drop in the website’s traffic as a result, a massive loss by comparison to previous search updates. The health implications of this drop are exceptionally troubling, given the effects they’ll have on essential services and individuals who require them. Since we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the timing of this core update is especially devastating. As the world struggles to adapt to a life at home, women require access to telemedical abortion more than ever. Considering the women and trans folk who will be affected by this, questions thus arise about the methods used to assess content and the nature of bias woven into these updates. Google assures the updates are meant to be neutral, but are they?

In the list provided by Google outlining how content is assessed, several factors are named and sectioned off into various categories. “Content and Quality” is one heading, which factors in original information, research analysis, and how descriptive/helpful the webpage title is; all reasonable approaches to assessing the validity of a website. However, another criterion listed is, “Is this the sort of page you’d want to book mark, share with a friend, or recommend?”, something that’s obviously difficult for sensitive, personal issues such as a medical abortion. Women on Web’s content is designed specifically for women who live in areas where access to abortion healthcare is restricted; some of the content can’t be shared by these women given the potential risks involved. In fact, by doing so, women are potentially at greater risk. These are some of the nuances Google has obviously failed to factor in to how these updates assess content. 

Upon digging a little further into how these updates make assessment amendments, an abbreviation that kept popping up was E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.

At first glance, all three of these are, again, reasonable criteria for providing an over/under for the effectiveness of a website. However, if we scratch the surface even a bit, we start to realize how nebulous the portions that make up E-A-T really are. In looking at an expansion on what constitutes expert content for example, factors such as: Was the website written by an expert or an enthusiast? Is there evidence of the expertise involved? The parameters of all of these criteria are ultimately left to your discretion: if you were to research a site, would you come away with a feeling of trust? Would you feel comfortable with this content? Almost all of these supposedly neutral assessments hinge on a significant degree of subjectivity. One might rightly argue that this shouldn’t be an issue if the website legitimately employs accredited experts on the services it provides. But this clearly isn’t entirely the case, as Women on Web has been operating for over 15 years (longer if you count its predecessor, Women on Waves), employs a staff of over 30 that includes a wide array of licensed doctors, medical practitioners, and experienced non-profit workers. Their services have been sought out and relied upon by thousands of women and begin with access to the website, making its compliance with search algorithms an integral part of their continued service. Therefore, both expertise and authoritativeness shouldn’t be an issue.

The third element, trust, is one that can be tricky for websites such as WoW, especially with so much credibility left to subjective interpretation, as the content starts from a place of controversy for many already. Abortion poses a unique but crucial problem as people’s distrust with the website could stem simply from their personal views, negating all the otherwise reliable information available. The word “trust” in this context is somewhat ambiguous as there are several ways to measure trust, particularly online where we don’t have the means to assess anything but the words on the page. Many otherwise superfluous forces could be at play that don’t have anything to do with level of expertise, authority, or trust at all: a site that was written by a second-language speaker, for example, a factor that research has proven to corrode trust levels. The rising backlash in recent years against abortion rights could also influence trust. With the update criteria as it stands, this subjective approach is seemingly enough to render WoW’s website untrustworthy.

The problem is, the way in which Google core updates assess content operates through a lens that clearly cannot factor in all the nuances required to yield specialized services, such as Women on Web. Are Google’s continued updates factoring in health risks or personal injury? Or are they merely based on hits and likeability, something that makes sense for a business or capital-generating platforms but not for sites that - thanks to systemic control over women’s bodies – potentially lose credibility on belief alone, no matter how knowledgeable or qualified the staff are.  Obviously, companies and organizations can purchase more detailed instruction on how Google screens content. But for services and non-profits that are providing needs that often fall short of substantial funding, is it their responsibility to spend what little they have on how to convince people of their expertise? Or should it be incumbent on gatekeepers like Google to educate their workers on some of the more sensitive complexities that surround services such as the one provided by websites like Women on Web? They are, after all, the ones with the power to decide which websites get shuffled to the top of a search.

So, what are the outcomes? Obviously, that remains to be seen. Certainly, we can posit fewer women will have access to potentially life-saving abortion medication, a serious health risk that resonates globally. We can also assume awareness surrounding the science and general information about abortion will be impacted, another direct hit that will be absorbed by women in the most precarious of circumstances. This means advocacy is needed globally in order to combat the outcome of the most recent update. In order to restore and ensure quality sexual and reproductive health resources are widely available and these results don’t happen again, we need to hold digital gatekeepers such as Google, accountable.

On a final note, if there’s anything to take away from this, it’s to share and support non-profits and services that may fall outside of the subjective areas of algorithmic assessments and thus not get the support they need. Abortion is one of the most common medical intervention practices, with over 42 million women seeking abortion for various reasons around the world annually, according to the World Health Organization. If women cannot get access to abortion, they’re forced to resort to dangerous, life-threatening means, making its availability vital.  Women on Web, among others, needs to be shared and recognized in order to continue to reach women without access to safe abortion, a service essential to women’s health.

 

Erin Hassard:

Erin is a linguistics graduate of Concordia University and lives in Montreal. She’s a freelance writer/editor and social justice advocate who’s done community work in language discrimination and gender-based violence.