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Hit bots, crawlers, and disappearing dollars

I just flew in from Roswell, New Mexico, and boy, are my intergalactic boosters tired!

    I just flew in from Roswell, New Mexico, and boy, are my intergalactic boosters tired! Between the papier-mach? Schwa-heads, the $20 bottles of Andromeda 7 spring water, and the government's explanation for the alleged crash at Roswell, I've had enough comedy this weekend to last the next ten parsecs. To top it off, I couldn't scare up any meaty conspiracy theories, although one fellow at my campsite suggested that President Clinton ordered the Mir collision to distract the nation from Paula Jones's hairdo.

    I have picked up other cosmic noise about microscopic life forms eating the wallets of advertising executives, however. Whispers are surfacing that Web sites are stretching their ad rates by feeding pages to software rather than people. An executive at one company that helps Web sites find advertisers complained to me that certain sites are inflating their hit counts by sending software bots, also known as crawlers or indexers, to their own pages.

    The bots, normally used by search engines to gather new URLs from the Web, can "hit" a Web site many times over in the course of a day, making it look like the site has had a surf bonanza. What's more, the executive told me, the bots are also clicking on the ad banners, thereby giving advertisers false impressions of their popularity. Picture, if you will, as Rod Serling used to day, little software termites chewing happily on your hard-spent ad dollars. Yum!

    I asked one of my intelligent agents at I/Pro, a Web rating company affiliated with the Nielsen folks, if such cases have been documented. The answer was no, but it wouldn't be difficult to program a bot to fatten up one's own hit counts, the agent said. If the offending site were contracted with I/Pro or another ratings auditor, however, it's likely that the strange usage patterns would show up in the Web site's log files.

    Why would a major site risk its reputation to pad its hit count these days? It's still early in the Web development game, and one would think that street cred, as well as solid relationships with advertisers, is more important than a little extra bang for the buck.

    Speaking of bang, I almost had the tip of my nose removed by a whistling Pete during the July 4 festivities. I also narrowly avoided having my ear bitten off by readers who objected to my coverage of the demise of NT Internals, a non-Microsoft Web site that documented the foibles of the NT operating system. My headline, "Au revoir les mescreants," was meant to be a joke. Maybe I should stay off the stand-up circuit for a while. As an apology, I offer up this toke from the peace pipe: another NT security site for your perusal. The designer writes: "No, Microsoft hasn't called me to take it down in the eight months it's been online, and even if it does, it knows I won't comply."

    I'll keep you updated if the fur starts flying. Saucers, rumors, and fur: It all flies here at the Mill. Send me your industry gossip or I'll set my neutrino smoothie pistol on "frappe."