21st: Pornutopia lost

The X-rated underground, insatiable for more clicks, is building a bold and bewildering new world of sleazy techno-tricks and "click-through farming." It could be the future of the Web.


Andrew Leonard
December 1, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Captain Hollywood was a hot-linking, blind-linking, bandwidth-stealing cheater. In the online sex business, that meant he was breaking all the rules -- boosting his own Web site's advertising revenue via an arsenal of sneaky technology tricks. Or so claimed several of his competitors when they fingered Captain Hollywood two weeks ago on a bulletin board frequented by "adult" site Webmasters.

The real truth may never be known. Captain Hollywood pulled his Web pages down shortly after the accusations surfaced, and he declined to comment to the press about his alleged crimes against the online porn community. But his little escapade speaks to a larger truth about the overall health of the cybersex industry: A rising tide of sex-site techno-trickery threatens to swamp the so-called Adult Web.

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This may come as a surprise to those whose main familiarity with online porn derives from mainstream media coverage -- where sensational stories keep breaking the astonishing news that Sex Sells on the Net! Sure, sex sells, especially when packaged with the ever-fresh attraction of new technology. But too much success breeds trouble, and the same technology that is your best buddy can turn around and bite you on the nude-model, free-live-video butt.

Crisis looms for the online porn biz, fueled by a volatile mixture of sex, technology and money. It's a crisis that demands attention even if you don't care whether every X-rated business on the Net folds up shop -- because the same bandwidth-filching, hit-nabbing tactics that are upending the online porn world today could easily show up in all of our browsers tomorrow.

"A lot of people out there making the big money right now are just scam artists, simple as that," wrote one participant on a bulletin board sponsored by the YNOT Network. "Until Webmasters remember and care what this business is supposed to be about, providing adult material to adults who want it, and doing so in an ethical and professional manner, Webmasters who play by the rules and maintain quality sites are going to be pulling their hair out and wondering why they are broke."

Broke? How can that be? Is this not, as Penthouse senior editor Gerard Van der Leun has decreed, the age of "Pornutopia?" Last summer's court-ordered rejection of the Communications Decency Act has led to an online pornographic surge of priapic proportions. Cyberculture defenders don't like to admit it, but the Web is clearly the most efficient delivery vehicle for lewd pictures yet devised by human beings. A year or two ago, lust-crazed surfers had to toil long and hard before locating the orgasmic aid of their desire. Today one need hardly break a virtual sweat. "Free pics" abound!

And that's precisely the problem. While news reports breathlessly declare that online porn is a billion-dollar-a-year-and-growing business, few observers are taking the time to note that supply is fast outpacing demand. Gold-rush fever, combined with the low barriers to entry typical for Web publishing, is putting the squeeze on profits. As Van der Leun notes, membership fees at the "pay sites" have been dropping steadily. A paltry $3.95 will now buy you a month's worth of all the streaming video feeds you can handle, and many sex sites also are offering a free week's membership as extra enticement to sign up.

"Clicks are harder to come by," moans one Webmaster. The result: a dramatic change in the online porn business model.

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No one knows exactly how many commercial sex sites exist, but even the most conservative estimates are in the 20,000 to 30,000 range. No longer can sex site operators depend on traffic to come to them. Adult sites that charge for admission -- pay sites -- have to actively recruit traffic. And they're doing so by paying other sites to steer sex-seeking surfers into their welcoming Web arms.

"Click-through" -- the act of physically clicking on an advertising banner -- is the name of the game. All Web advertisers crave click-through traffic, and most are eager to pay a premium for whatever they can get. But in the sex-site business, click-through is absolutely essential. Porn pay-site operators care little for building "brand awareness," nor are they interested in how many eyeballs roll across their wittily animated banners. The categorical pay-site imperative is to bring the customer on site and get him or her signed up. And so a new breed of so-called click-through farmers has emerged to funnel traffic to the pay sites -- at rates as high as 15 cents a click.

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Since it is not uncommon for a sex site, according to industry insiders, to register 60,000 "impressions" a day, the business of click-through farming can add up to big bucks. And yet many of these click-through farming sites are barely more than strings of banner advertisements. Since click-through farmers don't care about signing up permanent members, they attract their own traffic via free samples -- dramatically increasing the accessibility of graphic sexual images online and, paradoxically, helping to undermine the appeal of the pay sites that are funding them.

Click-through farming has spawned a network of businesses that focus on serving the needs of this peculiar trade. Companies such as SplitInfinity, WebSideStory and SexHound specialize in providing custom-made click-through tracking software, as well as "counter" programs for creating toplists that rank adult Web sites according to the traffic they attract and then deliver to other sites.

Click-through farming isn't necessarily easy money, on either side of the banner.

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"A lot of advertising programs will drop you and not pay you a dime if you don't meet their sales quota," says Brian Mosier, Webmaster for Soft2Hard. "A lot of advertisers have no intention of ever paying anybody, and are out to make a quick few dollars and disappear, only to resurface under a new name and location. With no written contracts and no real law to enforce, it makes it hard to trust anyone."

"Then there are the free sites out just to rip advertisers off," adds Mosier, "by manufacturing clicks, multiple clicking devices, hidden clicks, hidden frames, consoles, etc. There are so many crooks on both sides that it makes it difficult for the honest and hard-working individuals out there."

This is where the fun begins. A first-time online porn surfer is likely to be bewildered by the bizarre transformations of his computer screen after an accidental stumble upon a mischievous click-through farming site. New browser windows spontaneously cascade across the monitor, seemingly of their own accord. Attempts to close the windows only seem to generate more windows, including persnickety Javascript-launched "consoles" that linger long after the original site has been left behind. Some links appear to go nowhere, or lead the confused surfer in endless circles through the same small group of sites.

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Such is the cutting edge of Web technology, courtesy of constant sex-site experimentation. Sex and new technology have always been closely linked, from the invention of lithograph printing right on through to VCRs, camcorders and now the Web. Innovative adult Webmasters were among the first to embrace real-time video streaming technology and cryptographically authenticated password registration systems. Today, the latest fad is devising insidious tricks for manipulating and subverting click-through programming.

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Captain Hollywood was a classic click-through farmer -- but that wasn't
what outraged his colleagues. His offense lay in his methods.

His favorite technique -- "hot-linking" -- required little ingenuity.
Captain Hollywood baited his click-through farm with free pictures that
actually resided on other sites' servers.

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"By linking directly into my site ... he can display my pictures without
having to deal with the expense of my bandwidth," says "David," the
aggrieved Webmaster of The Erection Collection. "He
bypasses my counters by going directly to my pictures. I cannot have a
counter on every picture, mainly because the major counters don't allow it
and because each counter takes a certain amount of bandwidth to load."

"He was stealing my bandwidth," says David. "It is thievery, pure and
simple. It is pretty slick if you can get away with it, but death to your
site if you are caught. It is a major taboo to do."

Hot-linkers caught red-handed, says David, are likely to have their
sponsorship links cut off by other sex sites, and will also be banned from
the toplists compiled by organizations such as WebSideStory and SexHound.
David also alluded to harsher retribution, including direct network-based
attacks on offending Web servers.

Hot-linking, while common, is still garden-variety cheating. A much more
nefarious trick is blind-linking, another tactic Captain Hollywood
allegedly dabbled in. Blind-linking requires a level of HTML expertise
slightly above simply hand-coding direct links. The basic idea is to
register a "hit" on a click-through program without actually allowing a Web
surfer to leave the original site. There are a number of ways of doing
this; one key trick is to make the physical result of clicking on a link
invisible, usually by specifying that a new page or new frame is
infinitesimally small.

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Subverting click-through programs is the underlying motivation for
nearly all the weird browser tricks that porn surfers increasingly
encounter in their search for sex satisfaction. Of particular interest, and
annoyance, is the exit console -- a pop-up window containing several
advertising banners that is generated whenever a surfer exits a given Web
page via an advertising banner. Exit consoles usually point surfers
directly back to the original site. So surfers easily get trapped in a
loop, repeatedly returning to the original site without realizing it.

Such a practice is known as "circle jerking," and it has a double
purpose: It generates click-through dollars and it boosts a site's ranking
on the various toplists. Circle jerking is closely allied to a raging
epidemic of so-called illegal
link syntax
-- a fancy name for good old-fashioned false advertising --
in which "list players" load their ad banners with references to
outrageous and often illegal behavior ("Animal Gangbanging!") to lure
visitors to their sites.

You'd think circle jerking would be the fastest possible way to alienate
potential customers, but some circle jerkers claim a method to their
madness. One "list player" suggested that surfers exhausted from following
false links and wandering in circles will finally give up and agree to
become paying customers. "That's what gets them to whip out that credit
card," says Brian Muir, Webmaster for Butts-N-Sluts.

But to more above-board adult site operators, circle jerkers are ruining
the online porn industry. "In all honesty, it's a scam," says Chris Jester,
owner and chief programmer for SplitInfinity.

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Even when click-through farms play by the rules, they're still helping
to undermine the foundation of the online porn industry.

"Click-through programs are the downfall of the adult Web." says Beth
Mansfield, the owner and operator of Persian Kitty, a hugely popular site
widely recognized as the leading guide to online pornography. "I thought
that click-through programs would come and go, but instead they've bloomed.
There's been a huge influx of people earning revenues from banner ads who
wouldn't even have sites without click-through programs."

Just two weeks ago, Mansfield watched as The Pink Club, a content-free site that
has taken the art of circle jerking to spectacular heights, displaced
Persian Kitty from its perennial No. 1 spot on WebSideStory's
Adult5000,
the premier toplist in the entire online porn business.

"Probably 30 percent of the top 100 sites are doing nothing but tricking
visitors to gain hits," says Mansfield with a rueful sigh.

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To some adult Webmasters, the golden era of online porn is fast fading.

"Two years ago, you didn't really see the saturation of 'nothing' sites
that exists today," complained one Webmaster on the YNOT bulletin board.
"Back then it seemed it really was a battle of quality ... site design and
such to see who got the traffic. Banner programs were new and as a
head-up-my-ass, haven't-a-clue newbie I could make $6,000 a month. But now
it's no longer about the quality of a site, it's the number of hits you
get."

The Pink Club is registered to Damir Kruzicevic, a resident of
Croatia. Quality is not his concern.

"Competition is in hits not in so-called 'quality,'" said Kruzicevic
via e-mail. "If they want (this what they call quality) let's make counters
that will count 'quality.' Top lists are part of the adult Web. They are
here and they will stay here (at least some time). Yes sometimes they are
confusing to surfers, but whole Internet is confusing to some surfers."

But how soon before confusion translates into outright hostility? Greed
appears to be outweighing common sense. When even a list player like
Butts-N-Slut's Muir acknowledges that "popping consoles is not a fun thing,
I don't like going to my own site, but it makes money, and that's what I'm
in here for," one has to wonder how long the current situation can last.
Ultimately, as one YNOT bulletin board commentator warned, an exodus of
disgusted and frustrated surfers could topple the entire industry.

"If the pay site becomes extinct, we will all suffer," wrote this
Webmaster. "Think of it as a food chain. If surfers stop signing with
paysites, paysites in turn stop paying for click-thrus. This in turn will
be the end of the free site who depends on click-thru's, partnerships and
any other form of money making supplied by the pay sites."

"The pay sites need the free sites to gain traffic, and the free sites
need the pay sites to gain revenue," says Mosier. "It is becoming more
important to work together than to cut each other's throat."

Work together? In the ultimately unfettered free market that is online
porn, such an idea might strike some observers as reeking of unwarranted
optimism. Circle jerking, pop-up consoles, blind-linking, free-picture
proliferation and all the other tricks of the click-through trade are
paving a high-speed expressway straight toward a mass-shakeout dead end.

But why should anyone care? Indeed, one can imagine a cavalcade of
anti-porn activists cheering the circle jerkers on. If they foul their own
nest, who is harmed?

Actually, anyone interested in turning a profit by supplying information
and entertainment via the World Wide Web should pay heed. Everyone faces
the same problem -- ferocious competition in a sea of potential clicking
options. It is often pointed out that a large portion of the Web's
mainstream advertising is, in essence, one big circle jerk -- the Web's
biggest advertisers all tend to buy space on one another's sites. How long
can that be sustained?

The fact that sex sells on the Net is often taken as a hopeful sign for
the online economy. Look, those inveterate pioneers, the pornsters, are
making money! So can we! But the labyrinthine chaos of today's cyberporn
sites harbors a more dire message: The fierce dynamics of online commerce
and the breakneck pace of Net technology can create a vicious downward
spiral. As long as it's just the porn sites that get caught, you won't hear
too much complaint. But innovations spread fast online, particularly when
they increase site traffic. The thing to watch for is the moment Yahoo
starts popping consoles -- or the New York Times and the Washington Post
hit the circle-jerk circuit.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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