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Just An Online Minute... Study: Spyware Still Plagues Web Searches

Search engines continue to drive users to spyware and other nuisances. That's according to McAfee's recent second annual State of Search Engine Safety.

Overall, 4% of all search results take users to sites characterized as "risky," down from 5% last year. Sponsored links account for more than double the risky links as organic results, according to McAfee, with 6.9% of paid links leading to suspect sites, compared to 2.9% for organic links.

In other words, purveyors of spyware and other unwanted programs continue to purchase keywords on Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com and other search engines in order to drive traffic to their sites, where they can hijack people's browsers or otherwise cause mischief.

Still, the situation is better than last year, when 8.5% of paid links led to potentially dangerous sites. McAfee researchers attributed some of the recent improvement to Google's tweak last year to its AdWords system. Last July, Google changed its criteria for paid search ads by setting minimum bids based in part on the quality of landing pages. Now, just 5.4% of pay-per-click ads at Google led to a suspect site, according to McAfee, down from 8.5% last year. But, while Google became safer for searchers, rival Yahoo apparently became relatively more dangerous. Nine percent of paid links at Yahoo led to suspect sites this May, up from 6.5% last year, according to the report.

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Keywords most likely to lead to suspect sites include terms related to digital music and free -- or formerly free -- file-sharing programs, including Kazaa and Bearshare.

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