Second site Watching the Web go by

Search engines
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WHAT DO people want from the Web? One way of gauging demand is to look at a site called Search Words, which publishes charts of the terms most frequently submitted to search engines. Number 1 in a recent Top 100 was "MP3", reflecting the craze for downloading music from websites in the relatively compact MP3 format. Many of these files are illegal pirate copies, as is the software referred to as "warez", the Number 5 word. Number 2 was that perennial favourite, "sex", and explicitly sexual terms accounted for a quarter of the Top 100. Pamela Anderson's star shines as brightly as ever in cyberspace. At Number 9, hers was the most popular personal name.

Sex, bootleg software and Pamela Anderson: maybe the Net hasn't come such a long way in the past few years after all. But Top 100s only tell part of the story. They don't reveal the warp and woof of the Web, the mixture of the routine and the esoteric that gives it its unique flavour. One search engine provides a window upon Web explorers at work, in the form of a "spy" facility that lists some of the searches in progress at any given moment. All Web life is there, updated every 15 seconds. To taste a slice of it, I watched the Web go by for an hour, saving each list for subsequent examination.

The service comes in "filtered" and "unfiltered" forms; the latter's attraction being clear from its logo, a Sherlock Holmes figure opening his coat like a flasher. Viewers can click on any of the listed terms in order to see the results of the search, allowing them to follow the links themselves. It's ideal for voyeurs, who can tell themselves that they are only curious to know how other people get their kicks, or for ones who want to investigate exotic tastes that haven't previously occurred to them. The service also provides direct links to "adult" sites.

Sex was certainly prominent on the search agenda, but not at the level suggested by Search Words' Top 100. Of about 1,900 terms around 6 per cent were obviously sexual. I had my suspicions about others, such as "male armpits". The overwhelmingly heterosexual appetites on view showed an unpleasant predilection for teenagers and, in one case, for children ("pre-teen Japan"). Pictures of naked celebrities were much in demand. Nobody requested Pamela Anderson, but someone out there was searching for Wendy Richards. The search results produced a number of sites promising to meet his requirements.

Most of the searches were respectable though, reflecting a network to which people now turn to book airline tickets or locate banks. Three per cent of the searches concerned techie stuff for computers, while another 1 per cent was for MP3s. Computer games also featured strongly. The other prominent category comprised inept searches. One per cent of search terms were the actual Web addresses that searches are intended to find, while nearly 3 per cent were mis-spelled, raising the sorry possibility that illiteracy may cause a high proportion of on-line congestion. Regrettably, too, search engines have no sense of decency. They prefer keywords such as those entered for "Gery [sic] Halliwell nude" or "Britney Sprears [sic] nude" to the innocent gardener who was seeking "Hydrageas [sic]".

The higher aspirations of the Web were also visible, though. While the person looking for a Korean translation of the Koran may have drawn a blank, the one who wanted a Sumerian-English dictionary will have found one in the form of a website. The most perverse of all the searchers was the person or machine who was entering strings of exquisitely obscure keywords, such as "ticked eightieth sentences jeep denting via sloping intermediates". Hyper-literacy rather than illiteracy seemed to be the problem here. Perhaps it was a cry for help from a malfunctioning on-line dictionary.

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