Updated May 6, 5:50 AM PDT to reflect the actual announcement from the two companies.
Yahoo and McAfee announced a partnership Tuesday under which potentially unsafe Web sites appearing in Yahoo search results will be flagged as risky.
The deal, an exclusive for Yahoo, uses McAfee SiteAdvisor technology to label a variety of potentially dangerous Web sites with red warning text and links to McAfee information about what risks the site poses. Among the triggers for a red warning message are sites that host spyware, adware, or virus-infected downloads; sites that have links to other Web sites with dangerous material; and sites that have a track record of harvesting e-mail addresses later used to send spam, the companies said.
The move, along with related technology at Google and protections now built into browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, spotlights a gradual expansion of the war against computer attacks.
Mainstream computer security efforts began with antivirus software that runs on people's personal computers, spread to corporations that screen e-mails and other network traffic for dangerous traffic, and now is being built into the online search gateways that most people use to navigate the Web. Think of it as security software as a service.
Priyank Garg, director of Yahoo search product management, has high hopes for the Yahoo service, both for user protection and for hobbling attackers who try to exploit network insecurities.
"We expect users will have more confidence when searching on the Web," Garg said.
Deal extends beyond search results
And the multiyear partnership means the McAfee technology could be used elsewhere within Yahoo, Garg said.
"We have the ability to use their data throughout Yahoo," Garg said. "All the teams throughout the company are excited to leverage this information."
That could mean some changes. Yahoo currently uses Symantec's Norton Antivirus software to check e-mail attachments sent with its Yahoo Mail service.
Yahoo is trying the move to improve the clout of its search engine. In March, Yahoo was No. 2 in U.S. search results with 20.6 percent of queries, according to research from Hitwise. And it lost share to Google, which had 67.3 percent.
The idea is that people will tilt toward a search engine that will better protect them. Everybody wants more safety in searching, and some folks--parents, and those running schools, Internet cafes, and libraries spring to mind--are more sensitive than usual.
The move, while helpful, isn't necessarily going to mean a dramatic difference for the company, said Forrester analyst Natalie Lambert.
"I think it's going to very much help protect Yahoo users," she said. But when it comes to where people actually choose to search, "Fundamentally it's going to come down to how good the search is, and I think Google will still lead."
Google, here too, is a formidable search competitor. It's got some protections of its own now against sites that try to install malware via browser vulnerabilities. The company uses virtual machines check for Web sites that launch attacks, and those that do are flagged in search results with the warning, "This site may harm your computer."
Currently,Google doesn't check for viruses in downloads, e-mail harvesting schemes for spam operations, or outgoing links that could lead to dangerous Web sites, said spokesman Michael Kirkland. However, he wouldn't rule out that sort of possibility.
"It makes sense to assume Google has a vested interest in keeping its users safe and the Web safe overall," he said.
Curtailing Web attacks?
The Yahoo service could make life significantly harder for those who would attack people's computers, however.
"We see millions of clicks on some of these sites through our search engine today," Garg said. "It is going to have a material impact in distribution of this content."
The service will start in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Spain. So it has broad reach.
And the red flag is only the beginning. Through the McAfee technology, Yahoo has already removed an unspecified number of pages from its search results--for example those that attempt to compromise a vulnerable Web browser with a "drive-by download" attack launched simply by visiting a Web site. "We took out the risky sites where we don't want users to hurt themselves," Garg said.
But beyond the deleted entries and warning labels, Yahoo decided against altering search results. "There is an element of informed use," Garg said, likening the move to providing a city map with dangerous neighborhoods labeled as such rather than omitted altogether.
The Yahoo service isn't likely to directly address phishing, in which users are steered toward entering usernames, passwords, or other sensitive information into fake Web sites. "Phishing is less of a concern for the search experience," Garg said. "The Web sites that come up with phishing aren't usually around long enough" to make it into search results, he said.
While the service could improve security for searchers, it will also lead to a new phase in the constant battle between attackers and computer security firms, Forrester's Lambert predicted.
"At the end of the day, people are going to beat the technology," Lambert said. "You can only get so far ahead with security."