Search Engines Less Risky, but Problems Remain, Study Shows

Updated: An updated McAfee study finds a 12 percent decline in risk using search engines.

An updated report by McAfee shows search engine users continue to run the risk of clicking through to Web sites that can compromise their online safety. The study, conducted by McAfee SiteAdvisor, analyzed the five major U.S. search engines—Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and Ask—and found that although the overall chance of clicking through to a risky site fell by 12 percent, consumers click through to risky sites more than 268 million times each month.

"Wed like to think [the 12 percent decline] is because they are policing themselves better," McAfee Director of Marketing Kelly Ford said Dec. 11. But the problem, he said, continues to be widespread.

On average, 4.4 percent of search results link to risky Web sites, according to the study. Eight percent of sponsored results are rated red or yellow by McAfee SiteAdvisor—almost three times the number of organic results with the same rating. Sites are rated red if they fail one or more of McAfees tests for adware, spyware, viruses, exploits, spam e-mail, excessive pop-ups or strong affiliations with other red-rated sites. Yellow ratings are given to sites that pass McAfees tests but are still given a user advisory.

Adult search terms are twice as likely to lead to unsafe results as non-adult search terms: 8 percent of results for adult terms are red or yellow as opposed to roughly 4 percent for non-adult terms, the study found. Forty-one percent of the risky ratings are due to e-mail sign-ups that result in spam, while risky downloads and scams—such as those offering to sell free software like the Firefox or Internet Explorer browsers—each account for a quarter of the results. Three percent of red and yellow search results contain browser exploits.

In addition, McAfee officials said the rankings of the search engines changed, with Google, AOL and Ask now returning safer results, and Yahoo and MSN returning riskier ones.

"[Search engines] need to vet who they are doing business with," said Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Massachusetts-based Forrester Research. "Doing a search and following the link doesnt protect you."

The first version of the study was released in May. Researchers compiled a list of some 2,500 popular keywords taken from lists of common searches from the search engines themselves as well as other industry sources.

The first five pages of results for each keyword were then analyzed for each search engines. All totaled, McAfee SiteAdvisor has tested about 8 millions Web sites, Ford said.

"Search engines continue to play vital roles in the consumers online experience," said Chris Dixon, director of strategy, McAfee SiteAdvisor, in a statement. "But the risks of clicking on unsafe search results are real, so consumers should make use of tools like McAfee SiteAdvisor to make their searching safer."

Editors Note: This story was updated to include more information from the study.


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