Google says it has corrected a mistake that blocked ads for abortion providers from appearing in search results in Australia.
Abortion clinics in Australia reported a significant drop in traffic in the last week, as first reported by the ABC, with clinics such as the Macquarie Street clinic in Sydney stating their bookings had dropped and the phones had stopped ringing due to their paid ads not appearing in Google search results.
Jacquie O’Brien, the director of public affairs and policy at Marie Stopes, told Guardian Australia the clinic noticed about a week and a half ago that there was an issue with site traffic.
“When something like that happens quite suddenly, usually it’s an issue with Google,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the clinic was trying to get in contact with Google, but was told nothing was wrong.
“That’s usually the response you get from Google when something like this happens.”
Abortion providers still turned up in organic news results, but those results advantage the larger providers. Smaller clinics that rely on putting up ads in search results to appear higher up were more impacted by the sudden change.
A spokesperson for Google said in a statement that it wasn’t a ban on abortion ads, but an error.
“Abortion ads are allowed to run in Australia,” she said. “We identified a temporary issue affecting some advertisers in Australia, but the issue is now fixed. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
This month, Google made a change to the ads it would allow related to abortion search results. The company announced in May that it would require abortion clinics in the UK, Ireland and the United States to be certified as whether they provide abortion services or do not in order to be able to advertise their services with Google.
This change discloses in the ads whether an advertiser is offering an abortion service, in order to crack down on misleading ads steering women away from abortion providers.
The change followed reporting from the Guardian that Google had given tens of thousands of dollars-worth of free ads to an anti-abortion group with ads suggesting it provided abortion services when it did not.
Google did not directly comment on whether the change in the US, UK and Ireland had caused the issue with Australia.
O’Brien said on Thursday that Marie Stopes had noted a pick-up in traffic following the ABC report, but said that it wasn’t the first time a change with Google’s ad platform had caused issues for abortion providers.
The clinic faced a similar problem for 18 months ending last year over the use of the term ‘medical abortion’ in ads, she said. O’Brien said Google interpreted the regulations in Australia to mean that the term “medical abortion” couldn’t be used because it amounted to advertising the medication name.
“It’s not – it’s a process – you’re not mentioning the drug name,” O’Brien said.
“The result of that is we had to build a completely new website for our Google ads, which for a not-for-profit is a big thing to do.
“When they make these changes on an industry sector the size of the abortion sector … it has really big influences. Not just on the sector, but if someone wants to find out where they can get an abortion in their local area, they should be able to find that out relatively easy from Google.”
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will deliver its final report on the Digital Platforms Inquiry to government by Sunday.
In the preliminary report, the ACCC recommended the establishment of a regulatory authority to monitor companies like Google on their advertising platforms, and report on the ranking and display of advertising.
In response, Google argued the introduction of a regulator would be unnecessary and counterproductive.