The odds of a search engine directing you to a risky website are getting slimmer, but some companies are better at filtering out bad links than others, McAfee has said.
Google has improved over the past year, but AOL has the safest search results on the Web right now, McAfee said. The riskiest is Yahoo.
Overall, a significant percentage of Web links are still risky, McAfee said. In its latest study, published Monday, about 4 percent of search results were found to be risky. A year ago, that number was five percent.
McAfee's study looked at the first five pages of search results provided by AOL, Yahoo, Google, MSN and Ask.com for about 2,300 widely used keywords. It then compared those links to its Web safety database, which records sites that are associated with things like spam, online scams, Web attacks and risky downloads.
The study took a look at both the sponsored links returned by search engines and the "organic" links that are not sponsored, and Yahoo's poor performance is due to a spike in the number of sponsored links that McAfee deemed risky. When looking at organic links alone, Yahoo actually had the best results of any of the five search engines, returning risky links just 2.7 percent of the time.
The most dangerous subjects to search for are words related to digital music and tech toys, McAfee found. Searches for terms relating to these two categories return risky results nearly 20 percent of the time.
Some types of these "risky" results are much more common than others. For example, 0.03 percent of search results lead to a Web site that tries to run attack code on your PC. The chance of a link that is associated with spam is much higher: 1.3 percent, according to McAfee.
Improvements at Google, which provides search technology to AOL and Ask.com, have been boosting the safety of search results in general, said Mark Maxwell, senior product manager with McAfee's SiteAdvisor group.
Google returned risky results 3.4 percent of the time. A year ago, it scored 5.3 percent.
McAfee's top-rated search engine, AOL gave risky links 2.9 percent of the time, an improvement over last year's 5.3 percent. Yahoo, formerly one of the safest engines evaluated by McAfee, jumped from 4.3 percent in 2006 to 5.4 percent in the latest study.
Microsoft’s MSN also took a step backward, jumping from 3.9 percent in 2006 to 4.2 percent in 2007. Ask.com went from 6.1 percent to 3.5 percent.
Over the past year, the industry has been better at acknowledging that there is a problem with risky search results, and has reduced the percentage of risky sponsored links from 8.5 percent last year to 6.9 percent in 2007, Maxwell said. "You're seeing a lot more communication and cooperation towards the goal of trying to improve the online experience."