Most–well, nearly all–of the incoming links were spambots, but not of the traditional kind. Your Catholic spambots tended to visit pages, leave a link that a child of five could identify as spam as a comment, and scuttle off. Your unorthodox Protestant spambots, of which there was an increasing profusion, simply visited your site.

It was easy for Chen to explain the former: every incoming link helped boost a site’s search ranking. Even though the engines supposedly corrected for link quality, they could be overwhelmed by an avalanche of low-quality links. There had been a huge scandal last year, after all, when the H. B. Dollor retail chain had been caught buying spam links to puff up its retail site. But the visiting spambots posed more of a problem.

Chen found it was easy to spot them, at least: 90% ended in .cz.cc, the web address for the Cocos Islands, an obscure Australian island territory with 600 people and an anything-goes approach to e-commerce. He was certain that the visits were either intended to draw curious web owners, automatic link checkers, or other creatures that might follow the gossamer spamstrands back to the pages that had vomited them forth.

He was about to put all those theories to the test.

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