WASHINGTON-Type "morning after pill" in Google's search box. The top result: Planned Parenthood. But above the search results are three "sponsored" results: One is OptionLine.org, a site that tells women they have choices aside from abortion, a site sponsored by pregnancy center networks.
The largest demographic of women considering abortions is between the ages of 16 and 24, a group that will turn first to the internet for information before opening the yellow pages or responding to billboards on the highway. And when it comes to a matter as private as pregnancy and abortion, women are even more likely to take advantage of the anonymity of the internet.
"She might be alone in her bedroom, her dorm room," said Joy Crosby, a vice president at Care Net, which helps oversee Option Line. "It's being where she is at her point of need."
Option Line, a site backed by Heartbeat International and Care Net, has experienced surging success. Care Net estimates that 60 percent of calls to its information center were referrals from the internet ads. The internet is now the organization's primary mode of advertising, over anachronistic forms like public service announcements. "Internet advertising has proven to be the most cost-effective and targeted form of marketing we have come across," said Crosby.
Option Line averages more than 20,000 callers per month. Crisis pregnancy centers help an estimated 1.9 million women facing unintended pregnancies every year, according to a 2009 study commissioned by a coalition of pro-family groups. Option Line began buying up keyword-based ads over four years ago, and local pregnancy centers are beginning to catch onto the idea as well.
I googled "get an abortion" and pregnancy centers in the Washington suburbs popped up in the sponsored results. Meanwhile, local abortion clinics are also bidding for the prime real estate, but national abortion providers haven't followed Option Line's lead (though Planned Parenthood, for one, doesn't need to since it is usually the top search result).
The keyword game is inexpensive to play. Nationally, groups like Care Net bid on how much they will pay for clicks to their website from certain keyword searches. Crosby estimates that the cost of the keyword "abortion" has gone up in recent years from about 40 cents per click to $1 per click, but she considers that a relatively inexpensive investment. Locally, search engines use geo-targeting to determine the searcher's location, then deliver local ads.
Crosby is enthusiastic about the medium because it is so "moldable." When she helped begin the group's internet marketing several years ago, Option Line bid for keywords like "pregnancy." Care Net began paying for lots of clicks from happily pregnant women-not a demographic the organization is seeking to help. She redirected dollars to bid for keywords like "morning after."
The 16- to 24-year-olds still are hesitant to pick up a phone and call for counseling, so pregnancy centers want to make sure their websites' educational material appears among top search results-not just in paid ads. Right now, they don't appear organically in the top search results. Care Net has hired "content strategists" to make the organization's website more attractive to the roving search engine bots, by changing titles of pages and picking the right lexicon.
At the same time, it wants to be careful to avoid bringing women onto pro-life sites under misleading pretenses, like morningafterpill.org, which is sponsored by the American Life League and states that "emergency contraception is an abortifacient."
Where the internet community is unhelpful to pregnancy centers is in social networking. Pregnancy centers are hesitant to start up Facebook pages, for example, because of confidentiality concerns. If a pregnant woman posts information on a pregnancy center page, and a pregnancy center volunteer responds, the center can be held legally responsible for any breach in privacy agreements.
And an individual's internet anonymity in any back-and-forth with a pregnancy center raises all kinds of questions: What state does this person live in? Is she a minor? Is she who she says she is? Social networking will probably require pregnancy centers to compose strict policies for any interactions. "It's a distinct and tight rope to walk," said Crosby.
A pro-baby wave | Optimistic signs point to a changing abortion debate | Marvin Olasky
Learning to wait | Denied federal funds, abstinence educators plan next moves | William McCleery
'Look after orphans' | Twenty ways to become an adoption-friendly church | Paul Golden
Chemical reaction | The drug RU486 gives women the option of abortion in privacy | Alisa Harris
Eyewitnesses | Ultrasound technology is one reason more Americans are becoming pro-life | Alisa Harris
Higher learning? | Catholic colleges have become training ground for pro-abortion politicians | Anne Hendershott
Life changes | Anti-CPC forces alter their tactics and auditors eye Planned Parenthood | Alisa Harris
Called to a cause | The pro-life movement won over Marjorie Dannenfelser, and now she's working to help it win over Congress | Marvin Olasky
'It all clicked together' | How one Christian volunteer found herself in the right place at the right time at a crisis pregnancy center in Texas | Susan Olasky
The telltale protests | The abortion issue did not die after Roe v. Wade | Andrée Seu