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Siri, Search & The Abortion Controversy
Yesterday there were several articles about how, if you asked Siri for help in finding a place to have an abortion, it wouldn’t show you abortion clinics. This is something of a false controversy. It’s really about understanding Siri’s modus operandi and its limitations rather than an expression of any political or social agenda.
If you search for a specific place name, such as “Planned Parenthood” you’ll get a local answer. However if you simply say something like “I need an abortion” it stumps Siri and there are no results. Even the appeal “Help me find a places where I can have an abortion” yields no results.
Yet if you say straightforwardly “search the web for abortion clinics” it will deliver results from your designated default search provider (Google, Yahoo, Bing). The screen grabs below illustrate these various scenarios:
People are still figuring out how to use Siri and it will also continue to improve over time. Abortion is such a sensitive, “hot button” issue that I can see how the conspiracy theories come out when the search results do not.
It is curious however that in the more general request scenarios Siri doesn’t offer to “search the web” for “abortion clinics” as it often does with many other categories. However here’s another comparable example where there’s no offer to “search the web”: a search for a place to buy tools.
If you ask Siri “Where is a tool store?” there’s no response. If you then modify the query to: “I need to find a place that sells tools,” Siri locates hardware stores. The way that Siri is accessing the underlying data is likely responsible for these results (and their corresponding quirks and deficiencies). This calls for some Siri SEO.
I suppose Siri is still learning. (My inclination is to use the pronoun “she” but in the UK Siri is a dude.)
Postscript: Despite the ability to use Siri to “search the web” for abortion clinics, the controversy continued yesterday with Apple ultimately providing a statement to the New York Times:
“Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information, and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want,” said Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Apple, in a phone interview late Wednesday. “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.”
Postscript 2: See our follow-up story, Why Siri Can’t Find Abortion Clinics & How It’s Not An Apple Conspiracy.