Study Reveals Even Sponsored Links May Contain Spyware

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A recent study by McAffee company, Siteadvisor.com has revealed some interesting data: that virtually all the search engine results contain links to sites that install adware and subversive programs. Ok, that's nothing new, but some search engines are "cleaner" than others.

However, what's most shocking is that the results indicated that sponsored (paid advertisement) links were two-to-four times more likely to lead to spyware than "organic" (non-sponsored) results. This is especially true for certain common keyword searches like "free screensavers" and "download music." (My mantra has always been, anything that calls itself "free" should immediately be under great suspicion)

We compare safety of leading search engines, using SiteAdvisor's automated Web site ratings. We find most leading search engines similar in the safety of the sites they link to, though MSN is the safest and Ask lags noticeably behind. Across search engines, we find sponsored results significantly less safe than search engines' organic results. We find heightened risks for certain keywords, including those frequently searched by kids and novice users. We began this project in January 2006, and our analysis uses search engine results and SiteAdvisor safety data from April 2006.

Key Findings

* All the major search engines returned risky sites in their search results for popular keywords.
* Overall, MSN search results had the lowest percentage (3.9%) of dangerous sites while Ask search results had the highest percentage (6.1%). Google was in between (5.3%).
* Sponsored results contained two to four times as many dangerous sites as organic results.
* There was little correlation between search result placement and safety. Page 1 results were only moderately safer than results for pages 2-5.
* Dangerous sites soared to as much as 72% of results for certain risky keywords. Particularly dangerous keywords include "free screensavers", "bearshare", "kazaa", "download music", and "free games."
* We estimate that US consumers make 285 million clicks to hostile sites every month as a result of search engine results.

Our core advice: It's a jungle out there. Users should be careful where they go and what they do when choosing sites based on search engine results. Despite search engines' efforts, we see too many sites trying to deceive unsuspecting users. These tricky sites span a range of content areas, keywords, and business models – so there is no simple advice as to how to stay safe. Users can't count on search engines to protect them; to the contrary, we find that search result rankings often do not reflect site safety. Users are at especially high risk when visiting search engine advertisers -- even though search engines are well equipped to impose strict guidelines on sites buying prominent placement.

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