Tickling the Internet's underbelly

LAST WEEK we dug to the bottom of an online mystery: How did the first line of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" become one of Google's fastest-rising search terms? As it turned out this was no literary renaissance but rather legions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Viewers" who wanted to know the answer to the show's $25,000 question -- and weren't going to wait for host Meredith Vieira to tell them.

This week we have another, more lurid mystery. There's no tidy TV ending this time, but our investigation allowed us a glimpse behind the curtain, where vice and commerce meet in that obscure and lawless way particular to the Internet.

NPR editor Tricia McKinney, who last week played Holmes to my Watson, had been noticing a strange pattern on Google's Hot Trends list: a few days a week, very early in the morning, it appeared that a whole bunch of people in Texas were searching for the same very specific lewd phrases.

Texans searching for porn in the wee hours. If it doesn't sound surprising, remember that in order for "The Waste Land" to make this hot list, it took as many simultaneous Google searches as a popular daytime game show can generate -- certainly hundreds, probably thousands -- at the same time.

And yet somehow phrases like "hardcore latina luv," "hot teen luvin," and even "young dark skinned desperate girls," were making the same list. It's true that these phrases tended to appear on the list around 3 a.m. Pacific time, when most Americans are asleep, and so searches inspired by things like TV shows or the news are infrequent. But it's no small feat to get on the list at any time -- there are 300 million people in this country, and judging from the volume of sleeping pill commercials, more than a few of us are still Googling when the lights are out.

For a company whose goal is to allow easy access to all of the world's information, Google is surprisingly prone to secrecy. The details of the history-changing algorithm upon which its search engine is based are as jealously guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola. For members of the media too, communicating with the company tends to be a one-way affair: When it has something to tell you, it'll let you know. So it's refreshingly out of character that the company has offered a tool like Hot Trends, which gives users a window not only into what people are searching, but when, and from where.

In this case, the where was more specific than just the Lone Star State. Weeks' worth of the mysterious early morning porn searches were coming from three adjacent towns at the bottom of Texas -- just a few minutes north of the Rio Grande. Heard of McAllen? San Juan? Alamo? (Not the Alamo, the mission in San Antonio, just Alamo.)

I made a map of the three cities -- I called it "Texas Porn Row" -- and then every day for a week I wrote down the terms that would pop up like clockwork on the Hot Trends list. Whoever was searching had an array of prurient interests that, if you could say nothing else about it, did not discriminate on the basis of age, race or gender.

But now that I had the location nailed, other clues were in short supply. After hours of research, I found nothing in the news, on the blogs, on Wikipedia or in city police reports that showed anything abnormal about the area.

And when facts are few, the imagination moves in to help. Perhaps, I thought, the queries were coming from some sort of giant underground Internet cafe for reprobates, who every morning convened at dawn to search, en masse, for the dirty genre of the day. Or maybe it was a perverted version of the chocolate bar unwrapping scene in "Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" -- in which some mastermind was employing an army of workers to seek some elusive anti-prize hidden somewhere in the dregs of the Internet. Yes, and every 20 minutes, a bell rings and . . . .

Bing. It was my e-mail notification sound. I'd received a communique from the intrepid Det. McKinney. A new unexplained search term had materialized on Hot Trends, she said, and it was even weirder than the previous ones. "Zxbfwwr," was in the Trends' top five and, even though it wasn't exactly salacious (as far as we could tell, anyway), it was most certainly from Texas. The city of Bryan was only halfway across the state from Porn Row, and even better: McKinney had noticed that people searching "zxbfwwr" were also searching "irl." Also known as Texas A&M;'s Internet Research Lab, which is located in Bryan-College Station. IRL, its website said, was studying "Internet traffic measurement." Bing.

What better way to study online traffic patterns than by tracking the viral traction of nasty terms, and reverse engineering Hot Trends to figure out exactly how many searches it takes to make the list?

This was a brilliant solution to the mystery. But alas, it was no closer to the truth than the Willy Wonka scenario.

I contacted Dr. Dmitri Loguinov, a professor at IRL. He would not comment on the nature of his research or whether his lab was responsible for the "zxbfwwr" searches, but he assured me his lab had nothing at all to do with the porn searches.

Loguinov did, however, have a theory about what might be going on down there.

Spam.

Bing bing bing.

While most of us weren't looking -- or rather, couldn't see -- spam has evolved far beyond junk e-mail and advertisements parked at mis-typed Web addresses (laitmes.com). What we have now is more like a whole writhing spam ecosystem, one layer of which is devoted to exploiting the weaknesses of one of the Internet's main arteries: Web search.

Let's invent a few details to fill in Dr. Loguinov's hypothesis. Say there's a Web porn business -- call it Lone Star Porn -- with a network of computers along Porn Row. These mindless "bots" do nothing but search Google for, say, the phrase "bikini party," then dig down in the results until it can find Lone Star Porn and "click" on it to open the site. Every time it does so, the search engine thinks a user looking for a "bikini party" has chosen Lone Star Porn from among the millions of other results, signaling Google that next time, it might consider moving Lone Star up in the results because people like it. Have your bot repeat this for a few weeks, and maybe Lone Star Porn gets some more traction. Meanwhile, all those searches have had the side effect of landing "bikini party" on the Hot Trends list. Whee!

It was just an odd bit of serendipity that our alleged porn czar happened to be located within a day's wagon ride of an Internet research lab devoted to monitoring similar kinds of activity. But thanks to Loguinov, the Texas porn mystery -- while not exactly solved -- made for an instructive reminder that our Internet experience is highly sanitized. If it weren't for anomalies such as these few renegade Texan spammers -- still at large -- you might mistake your Internet experience for one where the dark sea of spam and porn was absent, rather than just invisible.

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