Be Careful Where You Point And Click

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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, 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."