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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Search engines swamped
New York skyline AP
People turned to the net for information on attacks
Internet users have been turning en masse to search engines for information, following the unprecedented terrorist attacks on the United States.

Traffic to search engines and portals was up by about 10 times more than normal.

It took those services some time to adjust to the insatiable appetite for news and information about the attacks, but analysts say that many came up to speed.

Across the web, virtually all search terms were related to the devastating attacks on New York and Washington.

The word "news", which usually appears as a minor item within the top 100, became one of the most requested terms on Tuesday across all search engines.

Nostradamus and Whitney

In the hours after the attacks, the term "World Trade Center" was entered by tens of thousands of users, anxious for information.

Top search terms on Lycos
World Trade Center
ABC News
Breaking news
World news
Whitney Houston
After the World Trade Center, other popular terms included "New York" and "Osama bin Laden", the exiled Saudi dissident suspected to masterminding the attacks.

People using the Lycos search engine were also interested in two other subjects.

One was "Nostradamus", reflecting interest generated by a hoax e-mail claiming the seer had predicted the calamity in New York. The other was "Whitney Houston", apparently because of rumours surrounding her absence from Monday's special Michael Jackson concert.

Demand for news

The most popular news organisation searched on Lycos, as well as the Google search engine was CNN, followed by the BBC, MSNBC, and ABC News.

Osma Bin Laden AP
Bin Laden: Search for information about terrorism suspect
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the number of searches for links to CNN was about 160 times greater than would usually be expected during a 12-hour period.

But many users trying to access news sites would have been frustrated, as the sites struggled to cope with the demand. Immediately after the attacks, some news sites became completely unavailable, apparently due to traffic overload.

"All news sites were under great stress on Tuesday as events unfolded in New York and Washington," said a report by internet measuring company Keynote Systems.

CNN, ABC News and the New York Times websites were virtually unavailable in the hours immediately after the attacks, said Keynote.

BBC News Online was also hard hit, with an average availability of 57% in the hours just after the attack, according to Keynote.

Search engines slow to react

The best performing search engine was Altavista, according to the Search Engine Watch, which analyses search engine performance.

Searches for World Trade Center at places such as MSN Search, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, for example, brought back no listings relevant to the current catastrophe

Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Watch
It said this was largely due to its partnership with the news crawler Moreover and integrates Moreover's news headlines into its regular listings.

A search on Altavista for World Trade Center brought up news stories about the tragedy less than two hours after the event. But the performance of one of the other main search engines, Google, was a "great disappointment", said Search Engine Watch.

It found that a search for World Trade Center two hours after the attack showed no indication that a major disaster had happened. Other search engines proved no more useful immediately after the attacks, said Search Engine Watch.

"Searches for World Trade Center at places such as MSN Search, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, for example, brought back no listings relevant to the current catastrophe," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch.

"Part of this was no doubt due to the fact than many major search engines are based out on the West Coast of the United States.

"When the attacks occurred in New York and Washington DC, people weren't even in their offices on the West Coast," he said.

Search engines catch up

But the performance of the search engines improved in the following hours. Google placed links on its home page to news coverage, including a link to a page copied from CNN.

Later, Google added a special link to news sources about the attacks on the top of its results page, where an ad might normally go. Other search engines made similar changes. Altavista added a special news search box at the top of its home page.

By six hours after the attack, the majority of the top half of Altavista home page was devoted to the attacks, along with a phone number on how people could donate blood.

On Yahoo, a box at the top of its home page that normally promotes shopping was changed to put out information about the attacks.

Lycos also put direct links to coverage of the attacks on its home page, though they were harder to see as they were further down the page. Similarly MSN changed its front page, though not to the extent as Yahoo or Altavista.

See also:

12 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Internet offers lifeline
12 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Net surge for news sites
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UK surfers swamp news sites
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