AOL Has “Safest” Results & Free Results Safer Than Paid

A new survey from McAfee finds that AOL has the "safest" search results in terms of not listing sites that might be somehow be risky or unsafe for searchers. But most interesting to me was the fact paid results across the board were found far riskier than free, organic results. Let’s do the numbers, some summary plus tools that will help protect you and how to see if Google thinks you’ve been naughty.

In terms of unsafe results, most of the major search engines are pretty clean. McAfee ran 2,500 queries, looked to five pages deep, then assessed the "safety" of the sites that came up.

The overall risk breakdown:

  • Yahoo: 5.1%
  • MSN: 4.6%
  • Ask: 4.2%
  • Google: 4.2%
  • AOL: 3.6%
  • Average: 4.4%

Overall, it’s not bad. The vast majority of results are perfectly safe, a pretty good job given the automated nature of these tools. The figures above include both "red" dangerous sites (such as giving out adware, sending you spam if you give an email address) and "yellow" sites that may deserve caution (pop-up ads, try to change your browser settings).

Here’s the breakdown of percentage of red sites in the results:

  • Yahoo: 3.1%
  • Google: 2.7%
  • Ask: 2.6%
  • MSN: 2.5%
  • AOL: 2.3%
  • Average: 2.6%

The report notes that things have gotten slightly better overall, plus gives Google some praise for recent interstitial pages that come up if you try to click from Google to a site they think might be dangerous, something they rolled out in August. However, these only appear in 18 percent of the cases where McAfee thinks they should.

The report also looked at the safety of results from a paid and non-paid perspective:

  • Organic: 3.0%
  • Paid: 8.0%

It’s a huge difference, and one that’s especially worrisome given that the paid results are supposed to be human reviewed at some point. If anything, you’d expect the paid results to have a lower percentage of unsafe results than the organic ones, given this review.

In terms of paid results safety by search engine, it breaks down like this:

  • MSN: 10.7%
  • AOL: 8.1%
  • Yahoo: 8.0%
  • Google: 7.3%
  • Ask: 6.5%

What are some of these dangerous sites? The report notes things like:

  • charging fees for things normally free to download
  • green card lotteries
  • disguised pyramid schemes

There’s also a drill down on the issue of "free" offers that turnout not to really be free. The report’s author, Ben Edelman, in particular hates this practice. Ben and I have exchanged email on this issue a couple of times, and I hope the report does help focus attention to curb some of these practices in terms of sponsored results, which should be easier to police.

When I read that the report went five pages deep into results, I thought that was overkill. The first page or two seemed enough, and going deeper could possibly skew the results a bit to being more "unsafe." Most people never make it past the first or second page of results, so any unsafe results from pages three and beyond are largely invisible.

The report addresses this. On average, each page of results generally has about the same percentage of unsafe listings (4.3 to 4.5 percent). Ranking position is also covered. In general, a top ranked site isn’t any more or less safer than a site in position 10. Sponsored results show more difference, especially for ads that have the number one position across the top or on the right hand side of the page. These are generally much safer.

There’s much more. Check out the report, plus see related coverage from InformationWeek. In terms of protecting yourself, some tools you might try:

  • McAfee SiteAdvisor: Surprise – the people with the report warning you about unsafe search results also have a tool to protect you. But it’s probably a good one, so check it out.
  • TrustWatch: Support to put warnings into your search results whether you use Firefox or Internet Explorer. You can also search the web directly at the service.
  • Scandoo: Web-based service offering to flag and filter dangerous sites. Also offers browser plug-ins.
  • Firefox 2.0: Latest version of Firefox has warnings built in.
  • Internet Explorer 7: Latest version of Internet Explorer has warnings built in.
  • Google Toolbar For Firefox: Has safe browsing built in.
  • Google Safe Browsing For Firefox: Running Firefox below 2.0? This plug-in from Google gives you warnings as you surf.
  • Yahoo Toolbar: Has anti-spyware and anti-adware features.
  • Windows Live Toolbar: Has anti-phishing built in.
  • MSN Search Toolbar: If you’re still running the MSN Search Toolbar, there’s an anti-phishing add-on you can get.

FYI, Google Webmaster Central recently rolled out new support to help site owners know if they are bad, bad, bad. Check out the information here on how to monitor this in the tools they provide and how to appeal, if you think you’ve been unfairly nabbed.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Microsoft: Internet Explorer | Search Features: Safety | Stats: General | Toolbars & Add-Ons


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • rustybrick

    Great right up Danny.

  • இ Search Engines WEB

    There is a possibility that the so-called, increased safety of the SERPs were due to the concentrated effort of Search Engines to rid their SERPs of sites using Black hat SEO techniques.

    Which may have had an effect of making the overall database more safe.

    One can assume a correlatation between Black hat SEO and spam sites.

    Also, since many of the Search Engines appear to be demoting sites that have not attained a certain Trust Rank or Quality Backlinks, this may also be a factor

    Perhaps users or competitors also complained about sites in the TOP 30 they chose to ‘out’ for bad techniques. Search Engines have been inviting replies in their SERPs.

    But since AOL is using Google’s SERPs, it is odd that there would be that degree of differences between their rankings.

    Ask uses ‘Expert Rank’ – so perhaps there is a possiblity that even valuable sites may have to resort to questionable tactics to remain free and competative.

  • Scott Clark

    It would be interesting to see this data broken down by services and retail, and then data for shopping search. I believe that would show some interesting spikes.

    The shopping comparison sites I think are fraught with bait-and-switch logic at rates much higher than those shown above. They send an XML feed to the comparo engine fully intending to redirect shoppers to alternative products. I have seen it myself at least 4-5 times while shopping for the holidays.

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