You've heard it a thousand times: be careful where you point your browser and what you type if you're on an untrustworthy Web site. Some sites contain nasty stuff like spyware, viruses and malicious code. In some cases, you'll get spam if you give them your e-mail address.
Now there's data to back that up, albeit commissioned by a company that makes its money selling products to protect you against the Internet's dark side. Self interest aside, the data from a study co-led by Internet anti-spyware expert Ben Edelman and commissioned by McAfee confirms what experts have been saying for years: Be careful about sites that come up in searches. In addition to selling security software and services, McAfee, this April, acquired SiteAdvisor, which helps consumers analyze the safety of sites.
The researchers analyzed results of searches on Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Ask.com and found that "all of the major search engines returned risky sites in their search results for popular keywords" and that "dangerous sites soared to as much as 72 percent of results for certain popular keywords, such as 'free screensavers,' 'digital music,' 'popular software,' and 'singers.'
The report warns users to be especially cautious about sites that come up as sponsored (paid) results; these "contain two to four times as many dangerous sites" as the non-paid results, the report said.
Sometimes you have to look carefully to figure it out, but the reputable search engines label sponsored results so users can distinguish them from the ones that come up based on the search engine's actual criteria that establishes a site's relevancy to a search term.
A Google search for "free iPods," for example, gives you a number of paid results which, according to SiteAdvisor, are potentially unsafe.
The report found that "MSN search results had the lowest percentage (3.9%) of dangerous sites while Ask search results had the highest percentage (6.1%). Google was in between (5.3%)."
The authors concluded that, "on the whole, we see little basis to conclude that any search engine is much safer than any other; safety rankings vary too much from search to search."
The report's authors estimated that each month consumers click on an estimated 285 million "hostile sites."
The researchers compiled 1,394 popular keywords using lists of common searches. "Adult search terms" were excluded. The results were analyzed using the database from McAfee's SiteAdvisor Web safety database which is based on "automated tests that analyze Web sites for exploits, downloads containing spyware, adware, or other unwanted programs, pop-ups, links to dangerous sites, and e-mail submission forms," according to the report.
In addition to pop-ups, spam and adware, some sites use what are called "browser exploits" to install unwanted code on a user's PC. In theory, these exploits can do serious damage to a PC or jeopardize a user's privacy and safety by exploiting information for malicious or criminal purposes.
The report was released to draw attention to a free McAfee product that helps consumers analyze a site before they click on it or before they submit any data to the site. SiteAdvisor works with both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox to show you a site's rating from within Google, MSN or Yahoo even before you click on it. With SiteAdvisor installed, when you search for a term in one of those search engines, you'll see a "safety button" next to the listing.
A green check mark means that the site was tested and there were no significant problems found. A yellow exclamation point means that "tests revealed some issues you should know about. (Example: a site tried to change our browser defaults, or sent a lot of "non-spammy" e-mail)" and a red X means that the site found "serious issues that you'll want to carefully consider before using this site at all. (Example: The site sent us lots of spammy e-mail or bundled adware with a download.)"
Once you get to a site, regardless of how you got there, there is an icon in the lower right-hand corner that gives you a color-coded assessment of that site — which, if you click on it, reports with details as to why the site was given its rating, along with rating of some sites linked from the site you're on.
In my tests, I found the SiteAdvisor results to be pretty helpful, but it wasn't perfect. For example, it gave a green light to the greeting card site, 123Greetings.com. While I don't have any evidence that the site puts any malicious code on your system, I do know that it pops up a lot of ads not only when you use it to send a card, but also when you click on a card that someone else sends you.
Flaws aside, SiteAdvisor generally does give users some pretty good advice when it comes to sites that should be avoided. It's not the end-all, but it is one more tool is users' arsenal to help protect us from online bad guys.