McAfee: Search Engines Falling Down on Security Job

The latest search engine safety report by McAfee SiteAdvisor states that Web search results are slowly getting safer, but it also asserts that search providers can do more to weed out sponsored links from scammers, malware spewers and other “bad actors.”

Search engine companies have the ability to clamp down on unscrupulous search-based advertisers (such as those buying ads through Google’s AdSense program) but seem to ignore the problem for fear of losing revenue, the report said.

So-called organic searches, wherein Web surfers seek sites by entering search terms in search windows, are significantly safer than clicking on the sponsored search results that often result from those initial queries, according to the study. McAfee SiteAdvisor found that sponsored results contain 2.4 times as many risky sites as organic results.

Watch Where You Look

“Search engines vary most in the safety of their sponsored results,” stated the report. It noted that 4.1 percent of the sites served up via sponsored results at met McAfee SiteAdvisor’s definition of “risky” while 9 percent of those produced on Yahoo were unsafe. “So users clicking on an ad are more than twice as likely to encounter a risky site on Yahoo than on Ask,” noted the authors.

The fact that the numbers vary means search engine providers have some control over the quality of their advertisers, said the report. “Search engines can look the other way while dubious ads run rampant, but they can also set and enforce tough editorial policies to keep bad ads out,” said the study’s writers. “Unfortunately, current guidelines primarily focus on ensuring appropriate ad copy as opposed to Web site safety.”

Dummy Proof?

“I am not exactly sure that it is the search engines’ responsibility to provide safe search results anyway,” said Kevin Finisterre, a security researcher with Digital Munition, told TechNewsWorld. “In my mind, a search engine is simply indexing what is out there already. I should honestly be able to receive my search results in an unfiltered manor. What is to stop the search engine company from deciding that my personal site is malicious and subsequently deciding to not list it in their page rankings?”

He enjoys “the fact that you can use search engines to dig up all kinds of random bits and bytes that you may not normally be able to find,” Finisterre said, and a search engine would “begin to lose value” if it began filtering results.

Censorship or Consumer Protection?

The main problem is with bogus sponsored links, said Ben Edelman, a Harvard University assistant professor and a coauthor of the report. The study is not calling for censorship, he stressed.

“We don’t call it censorship when publishers protect users from scams and frauds,” Edelman told TechNewsWorld. “There is no proper place on Google for an ad trying to sell you Skype, which sophisticated users know is actually free.”

Some cases, agreed Finisterre, are over the line. “I guess where I would take concern personally would be if the images being served up by AdSense became tainted with a Windows exploit, for example,” he said. “[But] if some jerk company pays Google for an ad and has enough page rank for people to click on the link … I don’t know. I think that’s a pretty thin line between customer ignorance and Google’s responsibility.”

There is a “tension between free speech and consumer protection,” Edelman acknowledged, but he said nobody should be free to cheat consumers.

“In my view, that is actually not a hard question,” said Edelman. “There’s no free speech to defraud. We’re talking about ads right now, not organic results. In that context, usually there’s a human making the decisions … including a right of review. So if your ad is rejected by Google, you can write to Google and ask why.”

Money Talks

Some sponsored link filtering seems to be taking place, the report said, but it isn’t happening as much as it should.

“Still, we are struck by search engines’ failure to block even the most notorious and widespread of scam ads — a decision we suspect arises out of search engines’ business objectives,” wrote the authors. “Excluding bad ads would reduce search engines’ revenues by leaving fewer bidders buying ad space — so search engines have strong incentives to retain even unsavory advertisers.”

The good news, according to the report, is that search results have become safer during the past year. “Both organic and sponsored results on Google, AOL and Ask now contain a lower percentage of sites rated red or yellow by McAfee SiteAdvisor than they did last year,” says the report. “However, Yahoo and MSN have become less safe over the past year. MSN and Yahoo were the two safest search engines in our May 2006 tests, but now their search results contain the highest percentages of risky sites.”

AOL, the report said, is the safest place to conduct a Web search, and searches for digital music and technology “continue to be among the most dangerous search terms.”

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