How Porn Helps Fuel Digital Media

Talk to big-name publishers and advertisers about porn, which makes up a big chunk of the Web, and they’ll tell you they don’t have anything to do with it. What some won’t tell you is they indirectly benefit from it.

That’s because adult-related content is very popular. The Web is, at its heart, a data game. And popularity means data. Publishers, for instance, use porn-related keywords to drive traffic to their sites. Some depend on adult keywords as the biggest sources of their search traffic. Advertisers, too, use porn. Web data brokers frequently collect information on porn sites that is then repackaged in aggregate — and wiped free of any hint of its origins — for ad targeting.

Take Funny or Die, for example. On its surface, the site would have little to do with adult content. Some of its videos might be a bit tawdry, but that’s all. Then, start to do some risque searches. “Sex”: Funny or Die shows up as the first Google result. “Tits”: the site is top of the pile again. Even “rape videos” returns Funny or Die. The listings are auto-generated topic pages Funny or Die produces as part of an aggressive SEO strategy. It’s not exactly a shocker to the publisher, however. After all, ComScore reports that six of its 10 top search-term referrals for March were sex-related, including “sex,” “XXX,” “boobs,” “tits,” “sexy” and “rape videos.” In fact, “sex” searches drove more traffic to the site than “Funny or Die” queries.

Because of the SEO techniques used by Funny Or Die, landing pages are automatically generated for thousands of terms, including “rape videos” and even “gang rape.” Searches for some of those terms drives significant traffic to the site.

The “gang rape” page features a range of content loosely related to the keyword, mostly generated by the site’s users. It also serves ads for major brands, including Home Depot and Kraft’s Velveeta, pictured below.

“It’s not a strategy to optimize for those terms; those pages are created automatically,” said Funny Or Die COO and general manager Mitch Galbraith. “The content itself is clean content; it’s just a function of the fundamental SEO our site does.”

Funny Or Die isn’t the only publisher receiving visits through search engines from users probably looking for content of a different nature. ComScore data reports three of the top four search terms bringing traffic to Complex.com in February were “black pornstars,” “porn stars” and “hottest pornstars,” for example, though those terms dropped down the list in March. Meanwhile, “teen strip” and “rape videos” were among the top 10 terms driving traffic to Daily Motion last month, and searches for “horse sex” were a major driver for search traffic to blip.tv. Vice also sees a lot of its search traffic from terms such as “pussy” and “ass.”

These sites could easily remove those pages from Google’s index if they wished, but they don’t because they continue to drive unique users, which enable them to tell more compelling stories to potential advertisers. After all, in the volume-driven digital ad game, bigger is not just better, it’s a necessity. According to some estimates, up to 15 percent of searches are porn-related. That’s a lot of potential eyeballs if you can find a way to appeal to them.

Galbraith said search drives “substantial” traffic to Funny Or Die and suggested it sees nothing wrong with attracting traffic for those type of searches.

“Our approach is more about the content. We’re not trying to be censors when it comes to the type of traffic that comes to the site or how it gets to the site,” he said. “We just want our chance to entertain people.” It remains unclear if users searching for “rape videos” are looking for the type of content Funny Or Die usually features.

But it’s not only publishers that use adult content to help drive their businesses. There’s also an opportunity on the data side, too. Widgets and buttons from companies including AddThis, ShareThis and Twitter are regularly found on sites featuring pornographic and adult material.

AddThis, for example, collects data from its buttons to help target and inform campaigns for advertiser clients. The company’s trackers can be found on sites such as XVideos.com and YouPorn.com, reportedly two of the world’s most popular adult Websites.

A spokesperson for AddThis did not comment on whether or not data is being collected from the above sites but did acknowledge its platform is an “open” one: “Any site owner can download our tools and install the code on their sites.”

Meanwhile ShareThis said it uses blacklists and keyword filters in an attempt to weed out data from “inappropriate content.” A spokesperson said the company ensures that data from sites with “inappropriate or adult content” are not included in its targeting pool. Twitter did not reply for requests for comment by time of publication but acknowledges it collects data from its buttons across the Web for purposes including ad targeting.

A rival exec maintained that even those companies with the best intentions find it difficult to guarantee the source of their data. “There is absolutely ‘dirty data’ out there. It’s just one of those things people need to be aware of and then decide for themselves,” he concluded.