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Report highlights sponsored search result security risk

New report from McAfee finds that sponsored search engine links are more of a security risk than 'organic' results.

Clicking on a sponsored search engine link is twice as likely to lead to a security risk than an ordinary one, according to a new report.

Citing the statistic that four out of five website visits start with a search engine query, security company McAfee examined the trustworthiness of paid-for entries.

While four per cent of all search results link to suspect websites, sponsored results contain 2.4 times as many risky sites as 'organic' results found naturally by the search engine.

However, the fact that 6.9 per cent of such results are rated red or yellow according to McAfee's traffic light system represents an improvement from the 8.5 per cent last year. This is attributed to safety improvements made by Google in the way it handles paid search, in terms of its hosting and checking of the links.

The report ranks AOL as the safest search engine in terms of sponsored results with 2.9 per cent rated red or yellow, down from 5.3 per cent in May 2006. Yahoo listed the most risky links with 5.4 per cent.

File sharing searches provoked the most risky sponsored listings: 'Bearshare' produced an astonishingly high 45.9 per cent of suspect results, 'limewire' 37.1 per cent and 'kazaa' 34.9 per cent.

"We're encouraged to see some improvement in search engine safety this year," said Tim Dowling, VP of Consumer Growth Initiatives at McAfee SiteAdvisor. "But with four out of five website visits starting with a search engine query, consumers are still exposed to hundreds of millions of risky searches per month."

"An active search engine user, one that performs more than 10 searches per day, is likely to visit a dangerous site at least once a day," he added.

McAfee's classification system is based on the company's SiteAdvisor WebSafety database, which contains 8.2m website safety ratings. A 'red' status is earned by websites known to carry malicious software, such as Trojans or viruses, or be associated with spam email. A 'yellow' status reflects that the site is not totally clear of such associations.

Google responded to the report by emphasising a commitment to security, that it "actively works to detect and remove sites that serve malware to our users both in our ad network and in our search results."

A Google spokesperson confirmed there were both manual and automatic processes in place to enforce its security policies. "We also encourage our advertisers to contact Google directly if they have concerns or detect suspicious malware," they said. "We [also] encourage users to educate themselves on preventive measures to keep safe".

The full McAfee report - The State of Search Engine Safety - can be found here.

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