Which art objects on the Getty Museum’s website are most popular? The answers might surprise you—or perhaps confirm what you’ve always suspected about the Internet.

Over the past year, three objects have vied for the top spot, each for different reasons.

<em>Irises</em>, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

1. Irises by Vincent van Gogh
Most visitors to the Museum’s online collection are there to explore our best-known masterpieces—such as James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, or Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, or pages from our illuminated manuscripts, including the Stammheim Missal.

Of all these, Irises is the leader in online visits. Why? It’s a painting people truly love. The artist is popular and frequently searched, the title of the painting is well known, and many sites link to it.

With these three drivers of Web traffic all firing at the same time, how could Irises fail to be our most-visited object?

The popularity of Irises is not a surprise. But there are also unexpected, and even funny, stories behind what’s popular online—and both are the case with these next two.

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime / Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, about about 1805–06

2. Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Interestingly, it’s not the main object page that drew all the traffic to our second-place object; it’s the larger image you see when you click on the enlarge link. This object has never appeared in our top list before—so what happened?

A well-followed blog called What Would Tyler Durden Do? posted a link to the painting. The site doesn’t have much to do with art (an understatement) and instead seems to just be about bikinis, somebody named JWoww, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Heidi Montag, and many other “famous-for-being-famous” personalities. The site didn’t link to the information about the object; instead, it linked to the large view. In just a couple of days, this painting soared to the number-two spot.

<em>Two Women Embracing</em>, Unknown photographer, French, 1847–53

Two Women Embracing, Unknown photographer, French, 1847–53

3. Two Women Embracing by an Unknown Photographer
This photograph isn’t a particularly racy image (by today’s standards, it’s very tame). But the Internet being what it is, and search engines working the way they do, we receive quite a bit of traffic to this page. The object’s evocative descriptive text doesn’t hurt traffic either.

Since we know what terms visitors use in search engines to find our pages, we can see that “two women embracing,” “erotic daguerreotype,” “erotic art two women,” and various versions of those searches are quite popular…go figure.

At a Web analytics conference I once discussed these results with Jim Sterne, a top thinker in the field. Jim’s take, with a wink, was that it gave him faith in the future of the human race. What’s your take?

P.S.—A little explanation for those wondering how we get all this data. As long as we’ve had a website, we’ve tracked visitor behavior. Each page on our site contains a small bit of code (which you don’t see when you view a page) that sends information to Google Analytics, our tracking tool, about where you came from, what you searched to find us, what you looked at on our site and for how long, and much more.

To put your mind at ease, I should tell you that the Getty does not have your name, address, or demographic characteristics just because you visited our site. But we do have a great deal of information about what you viewed, and we can aggregate information about all our Web visitors into behavior profiles that help us design better interfaces for you, produce the content you’re most interested in, and organize our Web presentation to support your information-seeking behavior (that’s tech speak for “what you’re looking for”).