Earlier this year McAfee sponsored a rather interesting survey of search engine safety. Safety, that is, from the ‘how safe are the links they deliver and you click’ angle. Now, for the longest time, I have harbored a passing suspicion that the dodgiest links you can follow from any search engine are those that fall into the paid for placement category. You know, those links that appear at the top of the results heap no matter what; those that always fill the contextual advertising sidebars; those that try to tempt you away from the real search algorithm deduced deal.
The ‘Safety of Internet Search Engines’ report was more than supportive of my theory. Based upon a survey of the five major engines conducted between January and April, it confirmed that these sponsored results are nearly three times as likely as non-sponsored hits to lead to unsafe sites. Which makes something of a mockery of the much vaunted claims by the search supremos that such sponsored placements are subject to rigorous editorial policy. The evidence as presented by the survey results suggests that search placements are not checked, or at least not checked adequately enough. To put it into some perspective, the survey revealed that a Google advert is actually more than twice as likely to lead to an unsafe site as an organic search hit, and the figure for an sponsored Ask placement is nearly four times as likely.
Of course, there was as always an ulterior motive behind the survey, or at least the timing of releasing the results to the press: McAfee were plugging their SiteAdvisor resource. Those with a keen eye for such things might recall this as being the brainchild of a group of clever MIT engineers, launched way back in April 2005. As is often the case with bright ideas, and a tool that can help combat the problem of social engineering techniques employed by websites to spread spam, distribute malware and steal IDs is just that, SiteAdvisor was acquired by McAfee earlier this year.
Unusually for such acquisitions, this tool did not find itself absorbed into a commercial Internet Security Suite product, but rather has been released as a freely downloadable resource for both IE and Firefox users. Essentially it is like having a common sense laden angel looking over your shoulder as your browse, informing you whether the link you are about to click is safe, dodgy or somewhere in-between. Green for go, yellow for caution (the site testing might have revealed an attempt to change browser defaults or an increase in spam) and red for dodgy (adware installing downloads, browser exploit execution etc.) It’s the totally unobtrusive way that SiteAdvisor achieves this that impresses me most of all. From that traffic light quick check, right through to the way that if you want more detail you just have to click on the color-coded button and a report pops up with the test results revealed. It makes using Google, or Yahoo and MSN for that matter, a whole lot intrinsically safer.
And those ‘tests’ it refers to? Well these are the combination of automated link following bots that download linked files as well as registering at sites and monitoring resulting spam, plus analysis by Site Advisor teams. McAfee tell me that the sites responsible for 95% of web traffic have been tested and rated this way, with more than 700,000 files downloaded and checked, and 1.6 million online registration forms completed with 1.3 million email senders logged and tracked. It’s impressive and intuitive, exactly what a good security tool should be. I heartily recommend you try it out, and even more heartily recommend you get less tech minded friends and family to do likewise…