Search Engines Need to Take Responsibility for Sponsored Links

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-05-18 Print this article Print

Opinion: It turns out that sponsored links often point to dirty sites. Shouldn't search engines take some responsibility for them?

Call me naive. I was surprised to read that sponsored links on search engines are far more likely than conventional "organic" links to lead to hostile sites. The study, by researcher and activist Ben Edelman and the McAfee SiteAdvisor team, found that 8.5 percent overall of sponsored links on Google, Yahoo, Microsofts MSN, AOL and point to sites rated as "risky" by SiteAdvisor.

Specifically, these risky sites merit either red or yellow status by SiteAdvisor, and its worth repeating the exact definitions:
  • "Red" rated sites failed SiteAdvisors safety tests. Examples are sites that distribute adware, send a high volume of spam or make unauthorized changes to a users computer.
  • "Yellow" rated sites engage in practices that warrant important advisory information based on SiteAdvisors safety tests. Examples are sites that send a high volume of "non-spammy" e-mail, display many pop-up ads or prompt a user to change browser settings.

Click here to read more about the search engine study.
My first inclination was to ask whether the SiteAdvisor ratings of the 8.5 percent as risky was trustworthy, but Ive dealt with Ben Edelman enough to trust his judgment on it. The guys not perfect, but hes scrupulous. Plus their methodology is all there in the article and seems, at first glance, to be reasonable. Add to that the fact that, as far as I can tell, the search companies havent disputed his results, and its pretty easy to draw conclusions.

I dont usually pay much attention to the sponsored links. I tune them out. But theyre there for a reason. Somebodys clicking them, and those users are not generally expecting a scam or to be infected with malware. Note that the study showed that 6.5 percent of the risky 8.5 percent were rated red, making them genuine bad guys, not just arguably aggressive marketers.

Next page: Tricky click.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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