Now we know why nobody bought enough pet food and golf gear to keep all those e-commerce companies afloat. They were too busy searching the Web for “naked skinheads,” “old men in diapers,” and “homoerotic baseball pics.”
A site called Disturbing Search Requests now offers a highly selective glimpse of what people are really looking for online. The site acts as a bulletin board where owners of mostly small personal sites can post and speculate about the oddball queries that led viewers to their pages.
Many Web users might be surprised to learn that when they follow a link from a search engine like Google, the terms they entered are passed on to the destination. Through free services like Sitemeter.com, owners of even small sites can keep an eye on traffic, including search queries. Sean Floyd, a programmer in Berlin, says he got the idea for Disturbing Search Requests with his friend Christoph Lincke in September, shortly after they started monitoring the traffic logs of their own sites.
“It was just amazing that there were search requests in there,” Floyd says. “I just hadn’t thought about that before.” (Floyd’s favorite request: “naked ugly midgets short people.”)
The site is clearly meeting a need. Some 400 people have signed on as members, and more than a dozen contribute on a given day. These online publishers, most of whom run online journals or weblogs, were once left to marvel alone at the twisted psyche of the Web-surfing population. With Disturbing Search Requests, they can share. The results are funny, surreal, and, yes, often disturbing. What could motivate someone to search for “father boy penis puberty shaving discussion”? How about “I rub vodka on my stubbly legs and sing and cry”? Or the poignant “alone on my birthday”?
The pages these searchers hit included some of their key words, but the matches were scattered around the page—with “vodka” in one place and “stubbly” in another—so the connection was obvious only in the search engine’s silicon brain. Sometimes a mention of a quirky topic will get indexed by a search engine and turn into a magnet for disturbing requests, as was the case with one site-owner’s reference to a newspaper article about “toe sucking.”
To creators of personal sites, most of whom publish for a small circle of friends and fans, getting freaky requests is a bit like having a stream of people come into your family restaurant and order crack. Endless variations on “15-year-old girls nude” prompted one woman to publish this rant on her site: “Let me remind you that you’re probably at your goddamn job. What the hell do you think your coworkers would say? Or your boss? Or your wife? Or your kids? Or your mother? Sickos.”
Contributors to Disturbing Search Requests don’t just get mad, they get creative. The best posts are little celebrations of the Internet’s randomness. “Sometimes people just make up stories which are completely absurd but are a good read,” says Lincke, who handles the technical side of the site from his home in Jena, Germany.
For example, when the proprietor of NotSoSoft.com got a request for “goatee templates,” she wrote on Disturbing Search Requests that she sensed a marketing opportunity. “Sticky paper templates with holes,” she said. “Just stick them on your face and then run your razor over the gaps. Genius.” And a search for “skydiving tattoo” prompted one journal-keeper to speculate about the effects of such a procedure: “Maybe I’d just look permanently like the woman in Airplane! who tried to put on lipstick during turbulence.”
There are other sites that allow a peek at the things people search for, but the queries are usually sanitized or turned into a popularity contest, as with the Lycos 50. “The freakiest stuff is probably also the stuff that only shows up once or twice, which means it doesn’t rise to the top,” says Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com.
But by spotlighting the freakiest of the freaky, Disturbing Search Requests has become so loaded with hot-button search terms that it is itself pulling in plenty of traffic from confused search engines. The site gets more than 1500 visitors a day, most of them more interested in “nude tennis” or “hairy armpits” than in meta-Web humor. Floyd is not disturbed. “That’s one of the things Chris and I like most,” he says. “We’re going to take over the Web!”