The Trend of Search Engine Safety

Last week, McAfee Inc. released a study which outlined statistics revealing the safety of the five major search engines: Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and Ask. The statistics showed that AOL is the safest among the five, with only 3.6% of organic results labeled as being “unsafe”, while Yahoo, on the other hand, was deemed the riskiest among the five with 5.1% of search results leading to precarious web sites.

The study took into account a variety of factors, including organic vs. sponsored results, the use of the word “free” in search queries, and adult vs. non-adult search terms. Surprisingly, sponsored results were found to be more than twice as risky as organic results, with 8.0% deemed risky, compared to only 3.0% of organic results. I say surprisingly because, at some point, paid ads include human intervention, whereas organic listings in these five engines are based on a computer algorithm.

Is this a growing trend?

No. Malicious listings for both paid and organic results have actually declined from just seven months ago. McAfee performed a similar study back in May of 2006, which showed that users, on average, are now slightly safer. According to the most recent study, unsafe listings in organic results are down from 3.1%, while paid results are down from 8.5%.

The study also revealed that Google, AOL and Ask have all become less risky since May, with AOL replacing MSN as the safest engine. Results for Yahoo and MSN, conversely, have become less trustworthy since May, and Yahoo now leads the pack as the riskiest search engine.

Will these studies change anything?

Difficult to speculate at this point, but search engines are likely taking notice. It will be interesting to see how these trends continue down the road. Competition is on the rise in nearly every industry, and as emerging companies attempt to find effective ways to gain a presence in the vastness that is the World Wide Web, deceptive tactics may serve as a tempting option.

For now, these five search engines are quite analogous when it comes to the safety of their results. If in the future, however, this similarity becomes emaciated and one search engine emerges as a decisively trustworthy source for information, products and services, that competitor would have a distinct advantage that would likely affect the search behavior of many.