Searching for safety

Online searches for even for seemingly innocuous terms can be dangerous to your PC's health, according a new survey.

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff writer, CNET News
Dawn Kawamoto covered enterprise security and financial news relating to technology for CNET News.
Dawn Kawamoto
2 min read
Winnie the Pooh and Tweety stand ready to wreck havoc on your computer.

According to a survey released Monday by security company McAfee's SiteAdvisor, online searches for even the most innocuous terms can be dangerous to your PC's health. For example, the terms found in the Google Zeitgeist category of "childhood favorites"--including "Winnie the Pooh" and "Tweety"--turned up risky sites in 6.7 percent of search results.

The survey, which updates one conducted in May, evaluates the safety of search results returned by the top five search engines: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN, Time Warner's AOL and Ask.com. McAfee SiteAdvisor compiled a list of 2,500 popular keywords and evaluated the first five pages of search results for each keyword, analyzing them for malicious content.

Overall, the survey found that 4.4 percent of search results led to risky sites, down from 5 percent in May. Among sponsored--or paid--links specifically, 8 percent of results led to risky sites, compared with 8.5 percent in May.

"It's good to see that clicking on search engine results has gotten modestly safer," Chris Dixon, McAfee SiteAdvisor strategy director, said in a statement. "But when almost one of 12 sponsored links still clicks through to a risky site, there remains significant room for improvement."

Of the five search engines, McAfee SiteAdvisor rated AOL as the safest with 3.6 percent of its overall results considered risky. Yahoo had the worst results, with 5.1 percent of its results rated risky.

The 10 riskiest search terms were "bearshare," "rotten.com," "free screensavers, winmx, screensavers," "limewire," "kazaa," "free ringtones," "ringtones" and "lime wire." Among these terms, 43 percent to 53 percent of the search results led to risky sites.

The survey also found that the numerous searches containing the word "free"--including phrases such as "free credit checks," "free e-cards," "free white pages"--resulted in 14.5 percent of the returns carrying some form of malicious content.

"Adult," or porn-related, search terms, meanwhile, led to results in which 8 percent of the sites were risky--double the level for "nonadult" search terms.

Google Zeitgeist, which is a weekly compilation of popular search categories and the top five search terms for each of them, had one particularly dangerous category: "tech toys." Of the top five search terms found there, including "ipod nano" and "mp3 music downloads," 23 percent of the site results were risky.

McAfee SiteAdvisor's definition of risky sites included those with "unsavory" e-mail practices, dangerous downloads, scam sites, those linking to other risky sites and those containing browser exploits.