Search Engines Need to Take Responsibility for Sponsored Links

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 Ask.com 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.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick 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.