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Search providers like Google and Yahoo! were able to ride out the dot-com bust partly because they discovered one of the Web’s few indisputably successful business models: paid placement of ads, which are commonly displayed atop or alongside unpaid search results in response to a given keyword or phrase. Given that Web users have demonstrated an insatiable demand for pornography and information about the latest health fads and miracle cures, one can’t really blame the search companies for including ads from porn sites and fly-by-night Internet pharmacies. But recently, as the Washington Post and the New York Times report, search engines have started to crack down, on the drugs if not the sex.

Whether driven by pangs of conscience, pressure from the legitimate pharmaceutical industry, or the threat of Congressional investigations, Overture Services – a supplier of keyword-based ads to Yahoo, MSN, and other search sites – said last month it would stop accepting ads from Internet pharmacies, at least until it can figure out how to tell the difference between legitimate and unlicensed drug suppliers. (Overture was recently acquired by Yahoo!.) Yesterday, Google followed suit.

But the big Internet destinations may more than make up for any lost revenue, the papers report, by, in essence, selling access to their users to sex-ad brokers. Since October, users entering sexual search term at AOL have been served a link to Adult Search Fantasy Finder, a porn listings service that pays for traffic from AOL.MSN has long had a similar arrangement with a porn search service called Nightsurf. And although Yahoo! stopped taking porn advertising in 2001, its acquisition of Overture means that it now controls the Overture-owned search engines AlltheWeb and AltaVista, which both accept sexually related ads.

Should we be shocked that search firms are finding more ways to make money from porn? Not at all – so do some of the nation’s biggest media conglomerates and hotel chains. The far bigger surprise is that Overture and Google would voluntarily turn away from their usual “caveat emptor” philosophy and try to protect their users from ads that Congress or big pharma deem pernicious.