One day in Boca Raton, Florida, in May 1996, Jordan Levinson, the owner of AIS Marketing, a startup that brokered ads for adult websites, received a call from a man who wanted to benefit from the burgeoning underworld of the information revolution: Stephen Cohen.
Levinson, who had worked with his father running a phone-sex company, had encountered plenty of wannabe pornographers in his day, and he sensed that, as he later put it, Cohen “didn’t seem too knowledgeable of the industry.” But Cohen had something more valuable: the one domain that anybody with a computer and a modem would type if they were looking for porn, www.sex.com. So he readily struck a deal to buy, sell, and collect ads for what Cohen promised would be the single greatest destination for “sucking and fucking” online.
Despite the federal regulation, there was simply no way to stop the flood of porn online, let alone determine or enforce the age of consumers. And now more people than ever were online. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of homes with computers was skyrocketing—approaching 36 percent of US households, up from 22.8 percent in 1993, and just 8 percent in 1984. One in five Americans were now using the internet.
Of these, most reported using it for email or, as the Census Bureau catalogued it, “finding government, business, health, or education information,” though anyone online at the time knew exactly what they were really seeking—just as generations had on every new medium before them. Even better, as Cohen learned, they were willing to pay for porn. When he launched Sex.com as a business in the spring of 1996, an underworld of outlaws, innovators, and entrepreneurs was racing to cash in. But first they had to do what no one had reliably done before: figure out how to make money online.
While Cohen might sell membership subscriptions to his site—charging visitors a monthly fee to access photos, videos, and so on—as Levinson explained, the trick was getting surfers to click a banner ad, the interactive billboards of the information superhighway, and visit a site. A banner ad on one page could be clicked and take a visitor to the other. The value for the advertisers came two ways: in “impressions,” meaning the number of times the banners loaded up for visitors to see, and in “clicks,” the number of times someone clicked on the ad, which would take him to their site. “They pay for the advertising,” as Levinson put it, “they pay for their banner spot to be there.” Levinson would be his ad guy—buying, selling, and collecting money, all for a 15 percent cut. How much could Cohen get? With a site like Sex.com, Levinson thought, upward of $30,000 per ad.
Cohen didn’t even need to make porn, he realized, to make money. He could make money just by selling ads on his site and cashing in on the traffic he sent to others.