Yahoo-sponsored links return most 'risky' sites: study

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McAfee Inc., a security technology company, conducted a study that claimed Yahoo- sponsored links return the highest number of "risky" sites for users. McAfee defines risky as "dangerous sites posing security risks including spyware, spam and scams."

The study, titled "The State of Search Engine Safety," shows that though the overall safety risk to search engine users declined by about 1 percentage point, sponsored results remain significantly more risky than non-sponsored results.

"Search engines vary most in the safety of their sponsored results," the study says. "Ask has 4.1 percent risky sites, compared to 9 percent on Yahoo - so users clicking on an ad are more than twice as likely to encounter a risky site on Yahoo than on Ask. See

"These differences indicate search engines' control over the sites they promote," The study says. "Search engines can look the other way while dubious ads run rampant, but they can also set and enforce tough editorial policies to keep bad ads out.

"Unfortunately, current guidelines primarily focus on ensuring appropriate ad copy as opposed to Web site safety," it says. "If landing page quality is correlated with Web site safety, then Google's implementation of landing page evaluations may be helping filter out dangerous advertisers. Still, we are struck by search engines' failure to block even the most notorious and widespread of scam ads - a decision we suspect arises out of search engines' business objectives. Excluding bad ads would reduce search engines' revenues by leaving fewer bidders buying ad space - so search engines have strong incentives to retain even unsavory advertisers."

In response to the study, Reggie Davis, vice president of marketplace quality at Yahoo, asserted his company's commitment to online security.

"Yahoo has been a strong proponent of helping fight malware, and is in fact the only major search vendor who makes free anti-spyware software available to its users," said Reggie Davis, Vice President of Marketplace Quality at Yahoo. "And we support any efforts that helps with the ongoing fight against unsafe sites. It is important to note that Yahoo's organic search results, which represent the vast majority of clicked links for consumers, have the highest safety and quality rating of all major search vendors. It is not in our interest to deliver experiences that would erode the trust of our users and advertisers as we are committed to building the world's highest-quality online advertising marketplace and providing the safest and most relevant search experience possible for our users. We will continue to improve our performance in this area by investing in technology and work with third parties to make the Internet safe for consumers."

Overall, McAfee estimates United States' consumers make about 276 million monthly searches that lead to Web sites that could compromise online safety.

McAfee studied the five major United States search engines: Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and Ask because they account for 93 percent of all search engine use.

Here are the study's findings:

  • 4 percent of all search results link to risky Web sites
  • AOL returns the safest results with 2.9 percent rated red or yellow, down from 5.3 percent in May 2006. Yahoo returned the most red or yellow results with 5.4 percent.
  • Sponsored results contain 2.4 times as many risky sites as organic sites; in fact, 6.9 percent of all sponsored results are rated red or yellow. This represents an improvement from 8.5 percent last year, primarily due to Google's improvements in paid search safety.
  • Categories related to music and technology continue to be among the most dangerous search terms. "Digital music" returns the highest percentage of risky sites at 19.1 percent, followed by "tech toys" and popular keywords like "chat" and "wallpaper."
  • File-sharing programs were also prominent among top risky keywords. Dangerous file-sharing searches include "Bearshare" (45.9 percent risky results), "limewire" (37.1 percent), "kazaa" (34.9 percent) and "winmix" (32 percent).
  • Scam sites remain prevalent, representing 3.2 percent of all sponsored listings. Typical scams include download sites selling free software, ringtone sites with misleading billing practices, and work-at-home sites with deceptive terms.
  • Among adult keyword search results, risky sites increased by 17.5 percent since December 2006, and risky sites now number 9.4 percent of overall adult search results. Driving this increase was a dramatic 72.2 percent increase in the percentage of risky adult sites within sponsored results.

"While we are encouraged by the recent overall improvement in search engine safety, search engine users still face serious security risks when using a search engine," the study says. "The average search engine user performs 43.1 searches per month and clicks on 2.3 results per search - yielding one dangerous site every 8 days, on average. An active search engine user that performs 11 searches per day is likely to visit a dangerous site at least once a day."

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