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Web Searches Getting A Little Safer

SiteAdvisor, the Web security subsidiary of McAfee  released its third "The State of Search Engine Safety" report, which said the best way to make your search engine more secure is to use Google's.

The study looked at the five major United States search engines -– Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, and Ask –- which account for 93 percent of all search engine use. It analyzed the first 50 search results from each search engine for 2,300 popular keywords. The results were then compared to SiteAdvisor's Web safety database of 8.2 million site safety ratings, which rates sites as Red, Yellow or Green depending on their safety rating.

A Red rating is assigned to sites found to offer adware, spyware, viruses, exploits, spam e-mail, excessive pop-ups or strong affiliations with other Red sites. Yellow ratings are given to sites that merit some caution before use, while Green sites are known to be safe.

Overall, McAfee four percent of all search results link to risky Web sites, which translates to 276 million searches that lead to dangerous Web sites by American consumers every month.

However, McAfee thinks the sites are doing better. "We've seen great progress across the industry in terms of sites taking steps to educate their users on potential risks. But we still see plenty of online risks," Mark Maxwell, senior product manager for SiteAdvisor told internetnews.com.

Threats were broken down between organic links, actual links found by the search engine to another site and returned as part of the search results, and sponsored links, which are ads placed on the top or right-hand side of the window, separate from the search results.

Sponsored links were found to be far more risky and likely to contain a Red or Yellow alert. McAfee found them to be 2.5 times more risky than an organic search. But there is good news: the vendors have made an effort to clean those ads up, and the riskyness dropped from 8.5 percent to 6.9 percent between May 2006 and May 2007.

AOL showed the most improvement, reducing the number of Red or Yellow results from 5.3 percent last May to 2.9 percent this year. Yahoo  performed the poorest, with 5.4 percent of its results Yellow and Red.

Ask.com, formerly AskJeeves, improved from 6.1 percent threats to 3.5 percent in a year. Both AOL and Ask can attribute their improvements to one thing: adopting Google's  search technology. AOL's numbers were particularly low because it had fewer sponsored ads as well, said Maxell.

Maxwell was at a loss to explain Yahoo's performance, which has actually gotten worse. In May 2006, 4.2 percent of its searches were risky, now it's 5.4 percent. "Yahoo is puzzling. I don't have a good answer as to why they don't improve," he said.

For its part, Reggie Davis, vice president of marketplace quality at Yahoo issued a statement that read, in part, "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… 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."

Certain categories and keywords are more likely than others to result in a dangerous site, with file sharing programs leading the way. Searches for "Bearshare" yielded 45.9 percent risky results, "limewire" saw 37.1 percent risky results, "kazaa" 34.9 percent and "winmix 32 percent.

Other bull's eye keywords included "Digital music," which returned 19.1 percent risky sites, followed by "tech toys" and popular keywords like "chat," "screensaver" and "wallpaper."

SiteAdvisor issued its first report on search engine security a little more than a year ago.