Search engines take a risky step: Porn banners

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Keyword advertising on search engines is getting a lot more racy.

Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos and HotWired's HotBot have all recently begun to sell banners to a handful of pornographic Web sites. Although the banners only appear when certain profane keywords are searched, some in the industry are questioning the practice.

`A DICEY MOVE'

"It's a dicey move for some engines because it puts at risk the brands they've been trying to create," said Karl Spangenberg, VP-advertising at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Infoseek, which has refused to accept pornographic advertising. "Displaying banners on our service for adult sites is not strategically in line with the kind of user that we are setting out to serve."

The issue could become a flashpoint in light of the Supreme Court's decision to consider provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which would make it a crime to distribute "indecent" material on the Internet.

Despite the fact that Excite-- 20% owned by America Online--and Yahoo! have positioned themselves as family-oriented services, neither have received complaints about the banners.

"We're still only in a trial period," said Tim Koogle, president and CEO of Yahoo!, Mountain View, Calif. "We're not sure that we feel comfortable with controlling the delivery of these things enough to incorporate them into our advertising policy."

EXCITE CONFIDENT WITH ADS

However, Excite, also based in Mountain View, appears confident in its decision to run the banners.

"This is where the medium changes from traditional print," said Excite's Director of Advertising Rick Vorhaus. "Online advertising is different because you can't have, say, a Procter & Gamble banner on the same page as an adult banner. The ads are disconnected."

Mr. Vorhaus added that none of the adult banners on Excite are in the general ad rotation and all of them first link to a warning page.

"Sex-related keywords are only a problem if you're targeting people that haven't self-selected themselves," said Scott Heiferman, president of New York online media planner i-traffic.

"What you graphically show on your site needs to be very well thought out," said Mr. Spangenberg, who once ran a banner that showed a baby's bottom on Infoseek and received complaints. "There are so many issues that it wouldn't surprise me if other search services change their policies on this one."

Copyright December 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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