Although the five major online search engines have improved search safety, four percent of all search results link to dangerous websites, according to a report from McAfee's SiteAdvisor. Searches on Yahoo are the most risky, AOL the safest, the "The State of Search Engine Safety" report indicates.
With the exception of Yahoo, the percentage of risky sponsored links on all major search engines has improved, dropping from more than eight percent last year to about seven percent this year, according to the report. Google, in particular, has "taken small steps" to improve the safety of the sponsored links on its landing pages, said Mark Maxwell, a senior vice president with SiteAdvisor.
Hannah Rosenbaum, the SiteAdvisor analyst who wrote the report, attributed the improvement to safer sponsored results. However, sponsored results still contain 2.4 times as many risky sites as so-called "organic" results, the study noted.
With a 2.9 percent rate of risky results, searches on AOL returned the lowest number of "red1" or "yellow2" risky ratings. Searches on Yahoo returned the most red or yellow results - distinguishing levels of danger - at 5.4 percent.
McAfee’s SiteAdvisor defines red-rated sites as those that distribute adware, send a high volume of spam or make unauthorized changes to users' computers. Yellow-rated sites send a high volume of "non-spam" email, display many pop-up ads, or prompt a user to change browser settings.
Google, AOL and Ask have become safer since May 2006, when SiteAdvisor first surveyed the search engineers, with Ask showing the greatest improvement. Yahoo and MSN both saw safety decline, according to the study.
Maxwell attributed the overall improvements in sponsored-link safety primarily to Google. The company has "done a better check of their advertisers, in particular taking a look at landing pages," he said. "It has taken a more critical eye toward advertisers on its front pages, and has rejected some advertisers."
He said one theory on why Yahoo's sponsored-link safety has eroded is that some of the malware purveyors "have gone to Yahoo."
"We haven't seen the impact yet from Yahoo's new ad technology, Panama, so perhaps in six months we'll see if that has had an impact on Yahoo's sponsorship rating," he said.
Both Yahoo and Google responded to queries about the report from SCMagazine.com with prepared statements.
"It is not in our interest to deliver experiences that would erode the trust of our users and advertisers," said Reggie Davis, a vice president at Yahoo. "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."
Google, for its part, said it "takes the safety of its users very seriously, and we've been taking a number of proactive steps to help protect them. This includes flagging potential malware URLs by warning users with an interstitial warning page and contacting webmasters directly when we believe an innocent site might have been 'hacked' to host malware."
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