Report: Search Engines Spread Malware

McAfee said Friday that the epidemic of spyware and viruses could be linked to search engines. According to research from the company, even seemingly benign search terms could bring up sites loaded with nasty payloads.

The study looked at the five major search engines -- Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Ask -- and covered a period from January through April. Researchers found that in every search engine, popular keywords returned sites that could be potentially dangerous.

What's worse, in popular keywords such as "free screensavers," "digital music," "popular software," and "singers," as much as 72 percent of the returned results contained some kind of risky link.

Overall, the average percentage was five percent, including three percent of the search results, and nine percent of the search advertising. Researchers compared this with the fact that only two percent of the 3.3 million Web sites in its catalog were know purveyors of malware.

"Search engines clearly play a critical role in Internet use: As a convenient starting point for online browsing, they're estimated to account for about half of all site visits," said Chris Dixon, who heads the McAfee SiteAdvisor product team.

"But economically motivated purveyors of spam, adware and other online problems quickly follow where consumers go online, in this case directly to search engine results," he continued.

The research raises questions as to whether or not the search giants are doing enough to combat the issue of malware within their own search results. However, none of the companies have publicly commented on the survey's findings, either pointing to their respective anti-malware applications or not commenting at all.

However, for the researchers, a stock response from the search engine companies does not seem to cut it.

"Search engines are too important to become just another online activity dominated by the worst elements on the Internet," Advisor to SiteAdvisor Ben Edelman argued. "Users need and deserve a way to search safely, and the security community can help."

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