Dangers of Popularity

Earlier, AOL posted a list of 20 million search queries made by 650,000 of its users. In response to consumer outcry (Examples: 1,2,3,4,5) , AOL removed the posting — but not before identities were revealed, privacies compromised, and embarrassing revelations made.

As if it couldn’t get any worse than AOL users’ loss of privacy, these users also turned out to be searching for some of the most dangerous words on the internet. Let us explain.

Last week, Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that “free” was the most commonly used word in search queries. The popularity of the word “free” underscores our assessment of the risks of web search. Our study of The Safety of Search Engines found that search terms containing the word “free” were among the most dangerous queries, often returning a very high percentage of risky results. For example, the most dangerous search term in our study was “free screensavers.” On average, across the five top search engines, 57% of search results for “free screensavers” were rated red or yellow by SiteAdvisor. Yahoo! returned 72% risky results. “Free ringtones” was the seventh most dangerous search term with 35% risky results.

The following table shows 13 search terms containing the word “free” that we found to be amongst the 5% most dangerous terms.

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Often, so-called “free” items are anything but free. Free screensaver and games sites are notorious for bundling spyware and adware with downloads. In our tests, downloads on aaascreensavers.com and totallyfunfreegames.com, for example, included unrelated programs from WhenU and Zango. Free e-card sites often share users’ e-mail addresses with third parties and can lead to a never-ending influx of spam. After submitting our e-mail address to e-card site funnyreign.com, for example, we received 1,075 spammy e-mails per week as result. Ringtone sites frequently lure consumers with misleading offers of free tones that ultimately lead to automatic enrollment in paid subscriptions. There are even sites that charge users for free programs. Freedownloadhq.com charges $37.95 for the free browser FireFox. They claim to offer technical support, but our review found their customer service to be severely lacking.

Gomes’ analysis of AOL’s search data also finds dangerous terms like “lyrics” and “music” to be among the most popular search queries. Our study found that search terms containing the words “lyrics” or “music” returned results that were 16% risky on average and even higher for some terms. For example, searching Google for “mp3 music download” returned 35% risky results. Unsafe lyrics and music sites are often plagued with nasty bundled downloads, risky ActiveX controls, and deceptive sales offers.

The correlation of search term popularity and search term riskiness illustrates how malicious activity tends to follow and exploit consumer behavior. Users demand “free,” and bad actors flock to fill corresponding search results with their deceptive offerings. All too often, users don’t realize the detrimental consequences of these sites until their systems crash from spyware or their inboxes become choked with spam.

But even though results for popular search terms are frequently riddled with scammers, our ratings show that there are safe sites in even the most dangerous categories. See our listings of safe screensaver sites, safe games sites, safe p2p sites and safe giveaway sites. With McAfee SiteAdvisor, users can find freebies that are truly free.

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