Revenge Of The Search Engine

UNSOLICITED E-MAIL, OR "spam," is a bane of the Digital Age. Now, some unscrupulous Web site operators have broadened their targets to include the search engines that help users locate relevant information on the Internet. Instead of directing unwanted E-mail at individuals, these Web mavericks flood the popular search sites--AltaVista, Yahoo!, Infoseek, and others--with thousands of repetitions of popular words, such as "Michael Jordan," increasing the odds that their Web site will rise to the top of a search list. Their motive: to generate more traffic and thus boost the fees they command from advertisers.

Now, AltaVista is fighting back. On Oct. 14, Digital Equipment Corp.'s search service began filtering Web sites through a program that analyzes documents for repetitions, long lists of key words, and links to deceptively named Web pages. The effort, coordinated by AltaVista "Minister of Defense" Edgar Whipple, has so far resulted in barring about 100 Web sites from the service's index.

That's a drop in the bucket. Louis Monier, AltaVista's technical director, estimates that half of the 20,000 pages added to the search engine each day are schemes to boost Web site rankings. When Princess Diana was killed, Monier says, "people were adding the words `Diana,' `death,' and `car crash' to their pages, even if they were totally unrelated." Although some banned Web sites have threatened legal action, the lawsuits haven't materialized. Says Monier: "They don't have a leg to stand on."

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