As useful as search engines can be, a recent study reveals they also come with major risks. An innocent search may end up directing you to a site that infects your computer with spyware or subjects you to spam, phishing, and other online scams.
SiteAdvisor, which McAfee (NYSE: MFE ) recently purchased, drew some scary conclusions from an extensive study on five key search engines: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) MSN Search, AOL, and Ask.com. According to SiteAdvisor's estimates, U.S. consumers make about 285 million clicks to hostile sites per month through these major search engines.
McAfee, of course, has an interest in making users aware of online dangers -- it sells antivirus software and other Internet security products, with 19.2 million subscribers as of the first quarter of fiscal 2006. McAfee has expanded its reach with the purchase of SiteAdvisor, which helps root out spyware and other uninvited, infectious programs.
Another interesting finding from the SiteAdvisor study: Sponsored search results, where advertisers pay for top placement, are likely to be more harmful than "organic" searches based on relevance and other unbiased factors. SiteAdvisor found that a sponsored Google search is more than twice as likely to involve an unsafe site as its organic searches. Ask.com's sponsored searches are four times as likely.
However, the study also points out that the search industry has had success policing hostile links. Remember the ads you used to see for illegal pharmacies selling prescription drugs? Google, for one, addressed this with its particularly effective AdWords Online Pharmacy Qualification Program, requiring pharmacy ads to gain approval from the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA).
Still, for the most part search-engine listings remain an untamed frontier. Changing that could be tricky: Not only does it take sophisticated technologies to foil unsavory ads, but those ads create tons of revenue for the engines -- $1.1 billion in all, according to the SiteAdvisor study.
SiteAdvisor's survey isn't entirely altruistic; it's part of the company's pitch for its own red-yellow-green system for evaluating websites' riskiness. But it's also attempting to educate its customer base. If the survey can generate enough awareness, perhaps the search engines will adopt better measures to warn users about the trustworthiness of featured web sites. Given the size of the industry -- and the importance of keeping users' trust -- SiteAdvisor's survey could create a nice amount of business for its new parent, McAfee.
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Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares mentioned in this article. Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick. The Fool's disclosure policy can always be trusted.