Navigating anti-abortion online strategy
Updated: 6:15 p.m. EST with a clarified quote.
In the seemingly endless war over abortion rights in America, battles are waged in legislatures, in courts and, most recently, on the Internet.
The strategy of using abortion-related keywords to send a woman searching the web for abortion information to a nearby crisis pregnancy center is already a few years old. But the scheme only received real national attention a couple of months ago, when Siri, Apple’s new voice-activated search assistant, was caught sending women looking for abortion clinics to centers that specialize in talking women out of abortions.
Apple refuted accusations of an anti-abortion agenda, instead blaming the “glitch” on search engines like Google and user-generated guides like Yelp, from which Siri largely extracts its information.
Apple’s explanation matched claims made by anti-abortion rights groups, whose websites describe in detail how they use keywords and Google ads to direct abortion seekers to a central website called Option Line, whose primary function is to route people to one of the thousands of crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country.
The Siri scandal sent The American Independent on a search for evidence that anti-abortion activists are successfully thwarting abortion searches on the Web. We found that CPCs have a minor presence online, but what’s telling is not so much the quantity of CPC ads that appeared on each front-page Google search, but the subtle, universal messaging these sites use.
In many cases, the presence of an anti-abortion agenda is masked.
Like most businesses trying to boost their visibility on Google, anti-abortion pregnancy centers buy ads through Google’s AdWords program. But at the heart of the strategy appears to be CPC websites that not only share a universal message, but also a universal Web design.
****Using various Google search approaches – “abortion,” “abortion services” “how can I get an abortion,” “I need an abortion” – TAI discovered at least one ad or entry that was linked to Option Line or to Option Line-created software on each primary search page.
These pages often also included two or three entries for individual crisis pregnancy centers or anti-abortion websites. One search result turned up a list of “abortion services” in the D.C. area that included anti-abortion pregnancy centers.
A Google ad that popped up frequently during our searches is “Thinking of Abortion?” whose URL is listed as assistcpc.org. The ad links to the website for Assist Pregnancy Center, a CPC in Annandale, Va. At the very bottom of the website is a note: “Website created by Optionline e-Xtend.” This links to Option Line Extend, a website development program that provides pregnancy centers with “a professional Internet presence.”
Another Google ad titled “Abortion Stories” links to the website standupgirl.com, whose domain is owned by Oregon Right to Life. The site is mainly devoted to promoting pregnancy and hosts an Option Line chat service on its homepage.
Option Line is a 24/7 live-operator contact center headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, which fields inquiries from people seeking information about abortion and pregnancy. It has a Spanish-only version at estasembarazada.com, staffed by bilingual consultants.
Option Line was co-founded in 2003 by Care Net and Heartbeat International, two of the three largest CPC networks in the U.S. About half of the more than 4,000 centers across the country are affiliated with one of these two networks.
In 2007, Option Line created Option Line Extend to sell to centers affiliated with either Care Net or Heartbeat International. CPCs are charged $150 for “basic websites,” $300 for “premium websites” and $500 for “ministry websites.”
Care Net, which made about $7 million in revenue in 2010, reported spending $600,000 on Option Line. Heartbeat International, which reported making about $1.4 million in revenue (PDF) in 2010, reported spending about 46 percent of its budget on its Option Line program between October 2010 and September 2011.
The Option Line Extend model websites are designed with calm colors and messaging, a departure from anti-abortion websites like AbortionNO.org (whose domain is owned by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform), which links directly to a graphic video of a fetus being aborted.
Aside from live-chats and directions to the closest CPC, Option Line offers answers to questions about abortion, birth control and emergency contraception.
In an answer to the question, “Should I take the morning-after pill?” Option Line replies:
Many times women panic after having unprotected sex and rush to take the morning-after pill (Plan B One Step® or Next Choice®). However, you can only become pregnant on certain days of the month — around the time that you ovulate. Taking the morning-after pill during a time when you cannot become pregnant needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones.
If you are already pregnant from an earlier sexual encounter, taking the morning-after pill is of no value and may cause harm6, 7. To find out if you are pregnant, contact us, and we’ll connect you with a caring, qualified pregnancy center near you.
Questions about abortion are answered in similarly sober tones. Potential risks from abortion — often overstated by anti-abortion activists and CPC counselors — are stated here as what they are, potential risks. For example, while activists often argue that abortion is a direct cause of breast cancer, here the link is presented as uncertain. Option Line is also careful about putting disclaimers at the bottom of some of its pages, stating that its centers do not offer certain services, but this message is does not always appear on individual center sites.
Creating diversions on the Internet
According to a recently released updated report (PDF) on crisis pregnancy centers produced by the Family Research Council, Option Line averages about 1 million visitors per year and makes about 20,000 contracts per month, with media partners such as Heroic Media and Online for Life.
Last September, The American Independent reported that Heroic Media, an anti-abortion media group headquartered in Austin, Texas, was employing what’s known in the industry as “landing pages” or “doorway pages,” which Google defines as “poor-quality pages where each page is optimized for a specific keyword or phrase … written to rank a particular phrase and then funnel users to a single destination.”
The single destination where Heroic Media was trying to funnel users was Option Line’s homepage. Heroic Media’s parent company, Majella Cares, registered the Web domain freepreghelpline.com, which, when clicked on, goes to optionline.org/get-help.
Heroic Media discussed this strategy on its website when the Independent first reported the story.
This was an excerpt that we recorded from this page:
Internet keyword advertising is targeted and measureable. We can reach scared, abortion-vulnerable women with life-affirming messages and monitor effectiveness by the number of views, clicks, and visits to our site. We recently launched a new landing page at **** to optimize reporting on just how many women are connected with life-affirming resources.
Keyword advertising on Google is also extremely cost-effective because you only pay for clicks, which cost an average of less than three dollars. That’s three dollars to connect abortion-vulnerable women with life-affirming information and people who can help.
A recent screenshot of the same web page we excerpted back in September shows that Heroic Media deleted the paragraph about freepreghelpline.com (also, the alleged amount of monthly “abortion” searches has jumped from 2 million to 6 million):
Screenshot from HeroicMedia.org, click to enlarge.
When asked if the organization is still using landing pages, Heroic Media spokesperson Marissa Gabrysch said the organization never used them.
“That’s inaccurate, although I understand why it was confusing,” Gabrysch told TAI in an email when asked about the doorway pages. “I have made the clarification on our website. Heroic Media’s keyword ads for Option Line link directly to optionline.org.
“The site has not been advertised through keyword ads,” she continued.