Sexual and pornographic Web searching
First Monday

Sexual and pornographic Web searching: Trends analysis by Amanda Spink, Helen Partridge, and Bernard J. Jansen

The level of sexual or pornographic Web searching is a major subject of political debate, particularly in the United States. United States federal prosecutors recently, as of 2006, requested that the major Web search engines, Yahoo, American Online (AOL), MSN and Google provide a sampling of their search queries and indexes of Web sites, in order to allow the examination of various aspects of pornographic searching and retrieval. This paper examines studies that have analyzed Web search logs to determine the level of sexual or pornographic searches on publically available Web search engines from 1997 to 2005. Results show that sexual or pornographic queries have declined as a proportion of all Web queries since 1997 and currently represented less than four percent of Web queries. In conclusion, the paper provides perspectives on the results, including issues of self–regulated choice and human mating behavior.


Sexual/pornography related Web searching studies
Conclusion and further research




Web searching is a daily activity for many people. Rainie (2005) reports that Web search engine use is edging towards e–mail usage as the primary Internet application. Recently, U.S. Federal prosecutors preparing to defend a controversial Internet pornography law in court asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and America Online (AOL) to provide millions of search records. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Justice requested a “random sampling” of one million Internet addresses accessible through Google’s popular search engine, and a random sampling of one million search queries submitted to Google over a one–week period. MSN and AOL complied with the government’s request. Yahoo! has provided some information in response. Google refused to provide the data later do so under court order. The current controversy surrounds the role of Web search engines and search engine logs in society (Shaker, 2006).

U.S. federal prosecutors stated that compliance is necessary to prove that the 1998 law is “more effective than filtering software in protecting minors from exposure to harmful materials on the Internet.” They believe that records from Web search logs could help to understand the behavior of Web users and estimate how frequently they encounter pornography, the motion says. For instance, Internet addresses obtained from the Web search engines could be tested against filtering programs to evaluate their effectiveness. These recent activities show that the level of sexual or pornographic Web searching is a major subject of political debate, particularly in the United States.

For academics, human Internet sexuality is an area of research in the social sciences (Cooper, 2002). Social scientists have for example studied gender differences in Internet sexuality (Cooper, et al., 2002). Seeking sexual information on the Internet also forms a subset of human information behavior (HIB) research that attempts to explore all aspects of information–connected human behaviors (Spink and Jansen, 2004; Spink, Koricich, Jansen and Cole, 2004; Spink, Ozmutlu and Lorence, 2004). The base–line elements in Internet sexual information seeking are the searching characteristics of the online user. One such search characteristic is the query the user selects to access sexual information on the Web.

Some query–oriented studies have examined the level of sexually–related queries since 1997. In this paper, we analyze the studies that have examined Web search logs to determine the level of sexual or pornographic searches on publically available Web search engines.



Sexual/pornography related Web searching studies

Table 1 provides an overview of the nine studies conducted from 1997 to 2005 that examined the level of sexual or pornographic Web queries, including the single Web search engines Excite, AlltheWeb, Alta Vista, Vivisimo, and Dogpile. No studies are publicly available that examined Web queries from Google, MSN, AOL or Yahoo!. Table 2 shows the distribution of Web queries across topic categories for the nine Web search engine studies. Table 3 shows the top 20 query terms across the nine studies.


Table 1: Basic data for the nine studies conducted from 1997 to 2005
Study Number123456789
Web search engineExcite (Jansen, Spink and Saracevic, 2000)Excite (Wolfram, Spink, Jansen and Saracevic, 2001)AlltheWeb (Spink, Ozmutlu, Ozmutlu and Jansen, 2002)Excite (Spink, Jansen, Wolfram and Saracevic, 2002)AlltheWeb (Spink, Ozmutlu, Ozmutlu and Jansen, 2002)Alta Vista (Jansen, Spink and Pedersen, 2005)Vivisimo (1) (Koshman, Spink and Jansen, in press)Vivisimo (2) (Koshman, Spink and Jansen, in press)Dogpile (Jansen, Spink, Blakely and Koshman, in press)
Date collectedTues 16 September 1997 Wed 1 December 1999Tues 6 February 2001Mon 30 April 2001Tues 28 May 2002Sun 8 September 200228 March — 4 April 200425 April — 4 May 2004Fri 6 May 2005



Table 2: Distribution of Web query topic categories for each Web search engine study
1997 Excite

(2,414 queries)
1999 Excite

(2,539 queries)
2001 Excite

(2,453 queries)
2001 AlltheWeb

(2,503 queries)
2002 AltaVista

(2,603 queries)
2002 AlltheWeb

(2,535 queries)
2004 (1) Vivisimo

(3,600 queries)
2004 (2) Vivisimo

(1,368 queries)
2005 Dogpile

(2,500 queries)
People, places or things6.7%20.3%19.7%22.5%49.3%41.5%15%27.9%16.0%
Commerce, travel, employment, or economy13.3%24.5%24.7%12.3%12.5%12.7%21%14.6%30.4%
Computers or Internet12.5%10.9%9.7%21.8%12.4%16.3%13%8.5%5.7%
Health or sciences9.5%7.8%7.5%7.8%7.5%4.5%6% 8.9%
Education or humanities5.6%5.3%4.6%2.9%5.0%2.3%5%11.6%5.6%
Entertainment or recreation19.9%7.5%6.7%9.1%4.6%9.5%2%11.4%7.0%
Sex and pornography16.8%7.5%8.6%10.8%3.3%4.5%4%3.6%3.8%
Society, culture, ethnicity, or religion5.7%4.2%3.9%4.8%3.1%4.5%9%9.7%4.7%
Government or legal3.4%1.6%2.0%2.7%1.6%2.6%3%0.5%3.6%
Performing or fine arts5.4%1.1%1.2%4.7%0.7%1.1%3%2.8%0.5%
Non–English or unknown4.1%9.3%11.4%0.6%0.0%2.5%19% 13.2%



Table 3: Most frequent Web query terms
  Excite 1997 Excite 1999 Excite 2001 AlltheWeb 2001 AltaVista 2002 AlltheWeb 2002 Vivisimo 2004 Vivisimo 2004 Dogpile 2005


Table 1 shows that the studies examined in this paper used large–scale Web data sets of queries and terms.

Query topic classification

Table 2 shows that the Web is a major source of information for most people, demonstrating the strength of a move toward the use of the Web as an economic resource and tool (Spink and Jansen, 2004). Individuals use the Web for an increasingly variety of information tasks (Spink and Jansen, 2004). The temporal findings across all data sets support the continued drop in sex and pornography as a major topic for search engine users. Sexual/pornographically related queries decreased as a proportion of all Web queries from 16.8 percent in 1997 to 7.5 percent in 1999, 8.5 percent in 2001 and less than 4 percent by 2004. Web queries related to business, computers and people increased as a proportion of all Web queries.

Commerce–related queries are now the most frequently occurring category (30.4 percent), followed by people, places and things, and unknown queries (indiscernible or non–English). At 3.8 percent, sexual and pornographic queries represented a very low proportion of all queries. Recently, Koshman, et al. (in press) found that one in five queries submitted to Vivisimo related to commerce, travel, employment or the economy, and some one in five queries were indiscernible or non–English. This represents a sizable proportion of all queries. In addition, one in seven queries was related to people, places or things. These queries include personal names or the names of locations.

Query term frequency

Table 3 shows that in 2005 the terms “sex” and “nude” continue as high frequency query terms, but overall these terms are now very small in number compared to the large number of query term entered into Web search engines. In 2001, Goodrum and Spink found that 25 of the most frequently occurring terms in multimedia related queries terms submitted to the Excite commercial Web search engine were clearly sexually related. Spink, et al. (2001) found that although sexually related searching by users of the Excite Web search engine represented only a small proportion of all queries and terms (<5 percent), about one in every four terms in the list of 63 highest used terms can be classified as sexual in nature.

Spink and Ozmutlu (2002) also found that terms such as “sex”, “nude” and “naked” were high frequency terms submitted to the Ask Jeeves commercial Web search engine. Jansen and Spink (2005) found that sexually related queries were less than 4 percent of Web queries and that only some 3.3 percent of those sexually related queries were for child pornography. This finding only included Web searches that explicitly stated terms for child pornography. Because of the vague nature, queries including the word “teen” were excluded.

The decline in the proportion of the sexual/pornographic Web searches could be related to many issues, including an overwhelming increase in individuals looking for information on other topics, particularly commerce–related information or that people are now accessing Web sites directly rather than using search engines for their information needs. In the next section of the paper, we will discuss how the decline may be related to people making self–regulated choices and engaging in human mating behavior.

Self–regulated choice

A decline in Web searching for sexually explicit materials could be explained because the “monkey has a brain” and a lifetime learning history. Fisher and Barak (2001) advocated the need to abandon the “monkey see, monkey do” [1] assumptions that have guided much of the current discussion on online sexual activity. Fisher and Barak (2001) questioned the popular belief that “sexually explicit materials are enormously prevalent and are saturating society at an accelerating rate with each passing year.” In making this statement, they referred to a recent article from a Canadian national newspaper — “The Triple X Crisis” (Cheney, 2000) — which informed readers that “3.8 million Canadians visited an Internet sex site in October of 2000” and that the “typical user visited Internet sex sites on 4 days per month” [2].

Fisher and Barak (2001) note that “taking these statistics seriously requires us to believe that approximately 25% of all Canadian males, aged birth to death visited an Internet sexuality site last month and did so on average of 4 different days” [3]. Fisher and Barak (2001) argue that current discourse on Internet sexuality fails to consider that “the monkey has a brain and a lifelong learning history concerning acceptable and unacceptable behaviours”.

Bogaert (1993, 2001) conducted a number of studies exploring what sort of sexually explicitly material men choose to see in a free choice situation. In the studies, undergraduate males, who were already participating in a study were given the opportunity to sign up for experiment credit, for additional research that would involve viewing their choice of 14 videos depicting common sexual acts, novel sexual acts, sexually insatiable females, sexual violence, or child pornography. Results showed that when given the opportunity to choose the modal selection (51 percent of all men) was to not see any sexually explicit material at all (either because they did not need further experimental credit or because they were simply not interested) and the least common choice was to view violent pornography (4 percent) or child sexual activity (3 percent).

Fisher and Barak (2001) argue that Bogaert’s research “emphasizes the central but generally ignored point that contact with sexually explicitly material is a self regulated choice” [4]. According to Fisher and Barak (2001) “most individuals have a lifetime learning history and set of expectancies about acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour that is sufficient to deter them from accessing or acting on antisocial sexual content on the Internet” and as such it is “important to avoid moral panic and premature pronouncements about the saturation of society with Internet pornography.”

Fisher and Barak (2001) base their position in the Sexual Behaviour Sequence (SBS) (Byrne, 1977) model, a social psychological model of the antecedent and consequences of sexual behaviour that can be applied to conceptualizing experience with Internet sexuality. The SBS model posits that individuals respond to erotic stimuli with affective and evaluative responses as well as with physiological sexual arousal. In addition, individuals acquire their affective and evaluative responses to erotic stimuli over their entire life span. Thus, in regards to sexual Internet activity, the SBS model emphasises that the individual brings a lifetime learning history, involving emotional responses to sexuality, beliefs about sexuality and expectations and imagination concerning the outcomes of sexual behaviour.

The SBS model therefore, conceptualizes contact with Internet sexually explicit material as a self–regulated event, which will occur or not occur as a function of an individual’s arousal, affective and cognitive response to sexuality. Thus, in taking the current studies findings into consideration Fisher and Barak (2001) could argue that a decline in Web searching for sexually explicit materials may be because the “monkey has a brain” and a lifetime learning history.

Human mating behaviour

An alternative view on the current study’s findings is that it represents the evolving nature of online sexual activity to mimic more closely human mating behaviour. For example, Cooper, et al. (2003) undertook a study that explored what people do online that is related to love and sex. Some 2,723 participants took part in the study. Cooper, et al. (2003) concluded that, for the study’s participants, overall the most important online sexual activity was seeking partners and accessing erotica. They noted that “the Internet appears to be a place where both men and women can engage in flirtatious behaviour to affirm their sexuality and attractiveness.”

Similarly, Boies (2002) sought to explore the online sexual activities on 750 university students. The study revealed that the participants most frequently used the Internet for seeking new people and dating. The work by Cooper, et al. (2003) and Boies (2002) serve to remind us that the Internet is not just only a tool for information exchange but also social interaction, and as Aristotle said, “man is by nature a social animal.” It could therefore, be argued that Internet sexuality is evolving to more closely mimic traditional human mating behaviour. As Hawkes and Scott note the “distinctive feature of human sexuality is its social basis.” [5] Other studies lend support to this view.

For example, Brym and Lenton (2001) found that 60 percent of a large Canadian sample of Internet dating service users (N=65,000) were looking for a serious relationship, and 3 percent of participants indicated that they had married someone they met online. Parks and Roberts (1998) found that 90 percent of respondents to a survey of MUDs (Multi–User Dungeon or Domain or Dimension) (a real–time text–based Internet environment similar to chat rooms) had formed personal relationships, with almost one third of the relationships resulted in face–to–face meetings. With these studies in mind, one could speculate that people who engage in online sexual activity are moving away from the solitary activity of Web searching to more social activities including participating in chat rooms, newsgroups, MUDs, MOO (MUD object–oriented), instant messaging and so on.

To this end, it could be argued that once an individual has used a Web search engine to search for a social activity (or community) that they wish to participate in (i.e. a specific chat room or MOO) they no longer need to engage in as much Web searching behaviour. Armed with the necessary URL, an individual can bypass Web engines. In addition, word of mouth, marketing via other media (i.e. TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines) may also provide relative URLs. As such, the results of the current study may provide only a partial picture of online sexual activity.



Conclusion and further research

In light of the current focus on levels of sexual and pornographic querying on Web search engines, our study has provided an overview of the key findings from existing studies. The key finding continues to be that sexual/pornographic queries are declining as a proportion of all Web queries, even as the number of overall Web queries is increasing. Our paper provides some potential insights into why this phenomenon is occurring. Further ongoing research is needed to track the nature of Web queries to commercial Web search engines. The authors are conducting ongoing studies into many aspects of public Web searching. End of article


About the authors

Amanda Spink is Professor of Information Technology at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Her research into human information behavior and information retrieval/Web studies includes over 240 publications and recent books Web search: Public searching of the Web (Boston: Kluwer, 2004); and, New directions in human information behavior (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006).
E–mail: ah [dot] spink [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au

Helen Partridge is Senior Lecturer in Information Technology at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on information behavior, information literacy and the digital divide.

Bernard J. Jansen is Assistant Professor of Information Sciences and Technology at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on improving access to information in various domain settings including sponsored search, Web searching, and complex information spaces. He has numerous publications in a variety of outlets.



1. Fisher and Barak, 2001, p. 320.

2. Fisher and Barak, 2001, p. 314.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Hawkes and Scott, 2005, p. 7.



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B.J. Jansen, A. Spink, A, and T. Saracevic, 2000. “Real Life, Real Users and Real Needs: A Study and Analysis of Users’ Queries on the Web,” Information Processing and Management, volume 36, number 2, pp. 207–227.

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A. Spink and B.J. Jansen, 2004. Web Search: Public Searching of the Web. Berlin: Springer–Verlag.

A. Spink, H. C. Ozmutlu, and D.P. Lorence, 2004. “Web Searching for Sexual Information: An Exploratory Study,” Information Processing and Management, volume 40, number 1, pp. 113–124.

A. Spink, A. Koricich, B. J. Jansen, and C. Cole, 2004. “Sexual Searching on Web Search Engines,” Cyberpsychology & Behavior, volume 7, number 1, pp. 65–72.

A. Spink and H.C. Ozmutlu, 2002. “Characteristics of Question Format Web Queries: An Exploratory Study,” Information Processing and Management, volume 38, number 4, pp. 453–471.

A. Spink, B.J. Jansen, D. Wolfram, and T. Saracevic, 2002. “From E–Sex to E–Commerce: Web Search Changes,” IEEE Computer, volume 35, number 3, pp. 133–135.

A. Spink, S. Ozmutlu, H.C. Ozmutlu, and B.J. Jansen, 2002. “United States Versus European Web Searching Trends,” ACM SIGIR Forum, volume 36, number 2, pp. 32–38.

A. Spink, D. Wolfram, B.J. Jansen, and T. Saracevic, 2001. “Searching the Web: The Public and Their Queries,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, volume 53, number 2, pp. 226–234.<::AID-ASI1591>3.0.CO;2-R

D. Wolfram, A. Spink, B.J. Jansen, and T. Saracevic, 2001. “Vox Populi: The Public Searching of the Web,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, volume 52, number 12, pp. 1073–1074.

Editorial history

Paper received 2 May 2006; accepted 18 July 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Amanda Spink, Helen Partridge, and Bernard J. Jansen.

Sexual and pornographic Web searching: Trends analysis by Amanda Spink, Helen Partridge, and Bernard J. Jansen
First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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