Search Engines Put Users at Risk

By | May 12, 2006

McAfee has released a study of the safety of the Internet search engines that shows search engine users are at risk of clicking through to Web sites that can compromise their online safety. The investigation, which studied the 5 major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Ask) was initiated in January and concluded in April, found that even common search terms can lead users to risky sites.

“Search engines clearly play a critical role in Internet use: As a convenient starting point for online browsing, they’re estimated to account for about half of all site visits,” said Chris Dixon, who heads the McAfee SiteAdvisor product team. “But economically motivated purveyors of spam, adware and other online problems quickly follow where consumers go online, in this case directly to search engine results. Today, based on browsing trends, we estimate that U.S. Internet users make 285 million clicks to hostile sites every month through search queries.”

The new study is the first comprehensive examination of search engine safety, and is possible only because of the massive database of site-safety ratings built by the SiteAdvisor team over the last year. To develop these ratings, the company conducts automated tests that analyse Web sites for a broad range of user problems: exploits, downloads containing spyware, adware and or other unwanted programs, pop-ups, and e-mail submission forms.

Among the study’s conclusions is the fact that some proportion of dangerous Web sites are included in the major search engine’s results. The study also finds that a broad range of key words delivers risky results, including words, phrases and categories used by younger users, such as “games” and “movies.” The study also finds that “sponsored” results—those paid for by advertisers—are more dangerous than non-sponsored results. On average, 8.5% of sponsored links were found to be dangerous versus 3.1% of non-sponsored links.

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