Search Biz Makes $1.1 Billion Off Links To Security Risks - InformationWeek

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Search Biz Makes $1.1 Billion Off Links To Security Risks

Sites that pay for sponsored links are nearly three times more likely to harbor spyware or adware, or hassle visitors with spam, than URLs generated by the engine's algorithms, according to research.

Sites that pay to have their links pop up on search engine result pages are nearly three times more likely to harbor spyware or adware, or hassle users with spam than URLs generated by the engine's algorithms, research released Friday claimed.

And search engines are cashing in, reported McAfee's SiteAdvisor service. By its estimate, the search industry made $1.1 billion from risky sponsored links last year.

The study, which evaluated Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Ask.com search engines using 1,300 different keyword searches, found that about 5 percent of the links served up in the first five pages can infect computers or plague users with spam. That figure, about one link per search result page, is more than double SiteAdvisor's Web average of 2 percent.

"Most people use search engines as their gateway to the Internet," said Shane Keats, a market strategist with SiteAdvisor. "Search engines are the highway, and you gotta use the highway. We're just pointing out the potholes."

There isn't a significant difference between search engines' results when it comes to putting users at risk, Keats argued. "They're not enough for consumers to pick one over another," he said.

But SiteAdvisor's research concluded that MSN had the lowest percentage of risky sites -- those SiteAdvisor color codes red or yellow -- of the five engines it tested: 3.9 percent. Ask.com's percentage, meanwhile, was almost double that: 6.1 percent. Google, Yahoo, and AOL fell in the middle, with 5.3, 4.3, and 5.3 percent, respectively.

Still, one of the most remarkable conclusions gleaned from the study was that non-paid results are safer than sponsored links, those paid for by advertisers, and the major revenue source of Google and Yahoo, which together account for nearly three-quarters of search market income.

"Organic" links, or the ones cranked out by the engine's algorithms, are much less likely to lead to dubious sites, said Keats. Only 3.1 percent of organic links were judged risky, compared to 8.5 percent of paid links.

"People tend to think that there would be additional vetting of paid links, since advertisers have to go through a process to get on the Web," said Keats.

By SiteAdvisor's results, the opposite is true.

"Search engines sell ads to sites that send users literally hundreds of e-mails per week," the SiteAdvisor report said. "Search engines also sell ads to sites that infect users' computers with adware programs that open numerous annoying pop-up ads."

The latter, in fact, is the foundation of a pair of class-action lawsuits filed recently against Yahoo. In both suits, plaintiffs argued that Yahoo turned a blind eye to spyware companies amongst its ad affiliates.

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