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It breaks my heart to know that people are paying too much for healthcare because they cannot find our good service journalism.

This is true largely because our Google search performance plummeted suddenly. We noticed it, and we were concerned — but we thought it was a quirk, or something that would quickly resolve. But no.

Same thing when our Facebook account was disabled recently by Meta, the Facebook parent — we thought it would quickly resolve. But no.

Then the company that manages my credit card started automatically disabling certain transactions, including one that was mission-critical involving Meta. We thought it would resolve, but — not so fast.

In each case, we were told, it was “the algorithm” — the set of machine rules that the companies use to achieve their goals — in Google’s case, to display the most relevant information from the web, in Facebook’s case to insure trust and safety in the material that is placed on the platform, and in the case of my credit card company, to stop fraud.

Wrong side of the algorithm

What exactly is an algorithm again? Merriam Webster says: “a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation. broadly a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end.”

So how did we wind up on the wrong side of the algorithm mysteriously after being on the right side?

With Google, we enjoyed many happy years of being on the front page of search results for things we cared about: “how much does a colonoscopy cost” and “abortion cost” and “MRI cost,” among others. Clearly the blog posts we were writing were enjoying great affection from the algorithm because they were quality information — packed with news you can use, links, critical assessment of healthcare pricing practices and so on. Google smiled upon us.

In those days, search engine optimization (SEO) experts pitched us to improve our performance, which was already stellar, so we ignored them.

Then in May 2020, Google apparently changed its algorithm. We noticed the slip in traffic at the time, but amid the challenges of Covid, we didn’t really focus on it until early 2022, when things settled down a little bit for us. We tried to fix it by using Google’s own advice resources, but nothing changed. We hired one highly recommended SEO company and did everything they recommended — to no avail.

Under their advice, we added keyphrases. We fixed the “meta descriptions” for many of our high-performing posts. We changed the format of many of our art elements from .png to .jpg on the advice that Google prefers .jpg. We added “alt text” to images — the verbal descriptions of images that serve to allow visually impaired people to know what the image represented. We shortened headlines, freshened any old links, on about 400 of our nearly 2,000 posts. And on and on. But nothing changed.

Then we hired another SEO expert. Same story: They said “do this, do that!” and made some recommendations contradicting the previous group. We did most of what they suggested, but nothing changed.

We hired a friend of a friend who talked a good game. No success. We sent up flares to others who might know — business and personal associates.

Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours later, we are still in the same place.

It’s not that our blog posts turned into unworthy information overnight: It’s simply a change in the algorithm.

Then, Facebook’s algorithm

With Facebook, in January 2023, we planned an ad campaign for a new direct-to-consumer New York City pilot we are launching. I re-credentialed our Facebook business account for advertising (we had done paid advertising only twice before, for my TED talk in 2019). The very second I re-credentialed, the account was disabled with no explanation.

What followed: Three straight weeks of appealing to Facebook, sometimes for hours a day. I used the “Something Went Wrong” button. I appealed to various chat support functions. I got a case number, which seemed like progress. There is no phone support, I was told repeatedly.

Then I finally got someone on the phone, and he — speaking over a bad connection with a heavy accent — told me the account was disabled and he would investigate, which I had also heard him say on chat. It seemed like a bad joke. More silence. More invitations to chat. No solutions, in fact no real movement.

At one point, Meta support emailed:

“Thanks for reaching out!

“In regards to your concern, After careful review, I’ve determined that we’re unable to take further action regarding this matter.

“Since there’s nothing else to add upon, I will conclude this ticket now.” They closed by saying, “we would like to commend you for spending your quality time with us. We hope to hear from you in the future. We are so gratified by the way you cooperated with us on chat and email.”

Ultimately, three weeks and about 25 hours later, the account was re-enabled — with no explanation.

This comes as Meta is rolling out a program called “Meta Verified,” charging customers for “a verified label, improved reach, better protection from impersonation, access to customer support and exclusive stickers on Facebook and Instagram.” The program is starting in New Zealand and Australia; “Meta Verified is a paid plan for individual and professional accounts that costs $11.99 per month on the web and $14.99 per month on iOS or Android,” TechCrunch reported.

If I was paying, would I get better service? Good question.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are options. I just saw this post on the subreddit /r/FacebookAds:

“high quality facebook advertising account rental agent with old spending history, daily spending limit is always 250$-1500$-nolimit

we rent both white hats, black hats, [Editor’s note: “Black hat” is tech slang for criminals; “white hat” is for the good guys]

– for white hat minimum daily spending budget of $250

– for black hat minimum daily spending budget is 1000$

+ we will provide all the healthiest accounts for you

+ ad account with daily spending limit of 250$-1500$-nolimit

+ verified facebook profile

+ old fanpage

+ credit card already set up in ad account”

So scammers are always able to jump back in; it’s the honest people who are kept out. Unless we wanted to spend thousands of dollars.

Yet another algorithm

With my credit card, the third-party company that checks charges for possible fraudulent activity refused to permit a charge to Meta to pay for advertising in early January. I first got a fraud alert. I appealed to them to permit the charge. Then I appealed to the head of the credit union that issued the card and hires the fraud-check agency.

She spent hours on the phone and on hold with them. They refused to authorize the charge, saying that it had raised “all sorts of red flags,” apparently because of their algorithm.

So the credit card company’s algorithm does not like Facebook, while Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t like ClearHealthCosts.

It’s not just me. I have heard in the last couple of weeks:

  • An online pharmacy reference guide that lost out in the Google search rankings, just as we did.
  • An animal rescue in Virginia that had its Facebook fundraising page disabled.
  • A friend whose Facebook post about an archaeological discovery got his account disabled.
  • A friend whose Covid-related post on Facebook attracted 200 comments, including one with a link to an article that got the entire post banned, and nearly got his account disabled.
  • A friend who is seeing stolen craft patterns appear repeatedly on her Facebook account, with no apparent attempt to catch the perpetrators.

Who’s up top in Google health costs search?

Meanwhile, the people who want you to pay more for your healthcare are way up high in the Google rankings, meaning that they have cracked the code — presumably by hiring SEO experts and having insights into the algorithm that we don’t have. Or maybe they’re paying for advertising and that gives them a leg up over us? No one can explain.

I asked the SEO purveyors why their solutions were not working. They said things like “it’s a long game” or “Google looks at lots of different signals” or “it’s a holistic approach” or “it’s a gray area” or similar murky things. No one offered to give me my money back when their solutions did not work.

Yet again: It’s not that our blog posts turned into unworthy information overnight. It’s simply a change in the algorithm.

I asked a friend who once worked at Meta to explain my Facebook problems. He said there are different algorithms for different things: One prohibiting racial slurs, for example, or one for adult content. One for a juxtaposition of words that machine learning may determine has been seen in other posts deemed to be dangerous or “inauthentic.” (What does that word actually mean?) One based on timing, perhaps. These algorithms operate independently, he said.

“If you tried to get anyone inside Meta to tell you what happened, they wouldn’t be able to,” he said. “Don’t try. It’s a waste of your time. Nobody really knows.

“Also: When the bad guys see this happening, they just shut down the account and set up another.”

Beyond that, he said, the scale of the business means that an error rate on assessing a post or an account that may look modest — 5 percent errors, or 7 percent — still means that millions and millions of people are affected by such problems. “If your bank or your grocery store did this, they’d be out of business,” he said. So will Meta be able to deliver on its promise of paid “Meta Verified”? Who knows?

The absence of real regulation for Google and Facebook means that this isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

Now what?

With Facebook, the account was restored, though I suspect there’s a black mark on our account — maybe both personal and business, which are linked. With Google, nothing we did made a dent in the problem.

So here’s the question: What can be said or done that would make any difference?

We are certainly not the first people to have accounts disabled, and to learn that Facebook and Google really have no support systems. We’re not the first to lose out in the search sweepstakes, for unknown reasons. There are hundreds, no, thousands, of stories on the web of people who have seen the same things we have. And it’s not in the business model of either Facebook or Google to attend to problems raised by people like us — we’re small potatoes to their advertising and data sales businesses.

These problems have not gone unnoticed among regulators — think of Mark Zuckerberg at his Capitol Hill hearings, resolutely not answering questions — but a solution does not seem to be near at hand. Can the algorithms be made to behave sensibly? Can the big platforms be made more responsible? How would you go about regulating these behemoths? Think of Mark Zuckerberg attending a Trump event at the White House. Did they discuss the error rate at Facebook?

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote a piece about this problem with the headline “Hello? Hello? Is This Facebook? Anybody There? (Nope.) Users with account problems go to extreme lengths to reach someone, anyone, for customer service; ‘I have never been able to speak to a human.’”

It upsets me greatly that Facebook shut down my account just as it was giving Donald Trump his Facebook account back.

And it breaks my heart to know that people are paying too much for healthcare because they search for health price information, but cannot find our good service journalism — they find only those who want them to pay too much.

Jeanne Pinder

Jeanne Pinder  is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded...