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Searchers Beware, Report Says

A surprisingly high percentage of sponsored links returned by major search engines raised red flags in a new study published today by McAfee SiteAdvisor.

The study, which tested results of popular keyword searches on Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Ask.com, showed that on average, 8.5 percent of sponsored links led users to "risky" sites.

By way of comparison, the study revealed that only 3.1 percent of "organic" or natural results linked to potentially malicious sites.

Ask.com had the dubious distinction of having the highest number of problematic results, with 6.1 percent (sponsored and organic combined).

Google and AOL were next, with 5.3 percent, followed by Yahoo at 4.3 percent and MSN bringing up the rear at 3.9 percent.

Shane Keats, market strategist at SiteAdvisor, told internetnews.com that he hoped this study will be a catalyst for search engines to do more to police their results.

"Search engines have made some efforts to vet their advertisers," he said. "One takeaway that I hope comes out of this study is that search engines do more to protect consumers."

Yahoo responded by saying in a statement that it is, "continually enhancing the search experience it delivers to users."

Yahoo also noted that it offers users "an anti-spy tool to help them identify spyware and we have proprietary technologies and teams of humans worldwide that are dedicated to improving the quality of our ad listings."

Likewise, Ask.com provided internetnews.com with a statement assuring users that "when we identify potentially unsafe results, including organic and paid listings, we aggressively remove them."

One of the most well-known efforts already under weigh is the Strider HoneyMonkey Project run by Microsoft, which is an attempt to ferret out sites that exploit browser vulnerabilities by installing malware   on the computers of unsuspecting consumers.

Both Yahoo and Google also require that any advertisers selling pharmaceuticals belong to the SquareTrade Pharmacy Program, which verifies that the sites are actual pharmacies in good standing.

But many experts believe that search engines face an almost insurmountable task in vetting their advertisers.

Andrew Jaquith, an analyst with Boston-based research firm Yankee Group, told internetnews.com that "it's kind of an intractable problem. It's not easy to police each and every applicant for malware."

The SiteAdvisor study used 1,400 keywords taken from Google Zeitgeist and Yahoo Top Searches, which list the most popular search terms by category on their sites, and ran them against the five most popular search engine sites.

Keats said that the survey cataloged the results from approximately 100,000 results per search engine.

Jennifer Simpson, another Yankee Group analyst, noted that search engines will want to demonstrate their attentiveness to this matter.

"This is the first thing that can affect trust, and trust in the results is the first thing that will drive people towards or away from a search engine," she said.

SiteAdvisor is a subsidiary of a company that sells virus protection, and some skeptics would argue that they have a vested interest in drumming up anxiety about viruses, spam, and other malware.

SiteAdvisor provides a free plug-in that ranks links as they are returned in the browser, using a familiar green-yellow-red coding system to warn consumers of the potential dangers lurking at particular sites.

But Keats said that this particular study is not skewed by any potential conflict of interest.

"I understand where they are coming from," Keats said. "[But] this is an extraordinarily transparent study. I invite skeptics to look at our data. Tell us where we're wrong and we'll be the first to correct the mistake."

The survey showed that the percentage of "dangerous" sites soared to as much as 72 percent of results for certain risky keywords.

Particularly dangerous keywords include "free screensavers," "bearshare," "kazaa," "download music," and "free games."

But Jaquith said that the relatively high overall percentage of dangerous sites shows that the problem is not limited to consumers trawling "dangerous neighborhoods."

"Malware infections are quite democratic and they affect everybody," he said.