Search Engine Safety, Revisited

This article uses data from SiteAdvisor, a company to which I serve as an advisor.

In January I bemoaned the sorry state of search engine results for "screensavers." I pointed out that most "screensavers" ads lead to sites I can’t recommend, and I criticized search engines for their failure to enforce higher standards. But this problem goes well beyond that single keyword and that single genre of sites.

Today SiteAdvisor’s Hannah Rosenbaum and I released The Safety of Internet Search Engines. We obtain top search engine keywords from authoritative sources like Google Zeitgeist. We extract top organic and sponsored search engine results for those keywords. Then we evaluate site safety, using SiteAdvisor’s assessments of spyware, spam, scams, and other Internet menaces.

A representative Google ad -- asking users to pay for software widely available elsewhere for free.SiteAdvisor markup of search results, flagging a representative Google ad — asking users to pay for software widely available elsewhere for free.

Our most notable result? Search engine ads are a risky business. Overall, across all keywords and search engines, 8.5% of sponsored results were "red" or "yellow" by SiteAdvisor’s standards, versus only 3.1% of organic results. It’s not unusual to see ads for notorious spyware vendors like Direct Revenue (as documented in my January piece); for sites that charge for software available elsewhere for free (like the ad shown at right, trying to charge $29 for Skype’s free phone); and for spammers that send hundreds of mesages per week, if a user enters a single email address. These scams deceive and harm search engine users, and I’d like to see Google update its advertising editorial guidelines to prohibit such practices — then enforce these rules with appropriate diligence.

Our article includes an abundance of data. I particularly enjoy this chart of Google site safety by individual keyword — showing "free screensavers" as our single most dangerous search, with other notorious searches including "bearshare," "free music downloads," "winzip," and "kazaa." See also our charts of specific red and yellow sites found within search results.

The full article:

The Safety of Internet Search Engines