A View from MIT TR Editors

Drugs, Sex, and Search

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…

  • December 2, 2003

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.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.