The security company McAfee makes a product called SiteAdvisor, a really noble piece of free software meant to keep you safe from spyware and other bad code that roams the Web. As a bit of P.R. for the program, the company conducts an annual study of "dangerous" Web search queries and search engines: That is, McAfee plugs lots of popular search terms into several search engines and looks to see which ones return Web sites that are going to cause you harm.
Check out the 2007 results to see if you're engaging in risky Web-searching behavior. For instance, do you use Yahoo? Not too safe. McAfee found that about 5 percent of Yahoo's top search results point to pages that try to install software on your computer, change your browser settings, send you spam, or otherwise harm your machine. AOL is the safest search engine -- under 3 percent of searches there will give you bad sites -- and Google and Ask follow closely behind. Another thing: Across all search engines, sponsored results -- that is, ads -- are much more likely to lead to harmful sites than ordinary "organic" search results.
The specific searches you're conducting will also affect whether you end up on a bad site. Searching for porn, obviously, will land you in troubled waters. Overall, about 7 percent of search results for "adult" keywords (across all search engines) return dangerous pages. But even worse than using a search engine for your jollies, says McAfee, is using a search engine to get your groove on. File-sharing keywords like "bearshare," "limewire" and "winmx" will bring up a rogue's gallery of bad sites; "bearshare," in fact, is the world's most dangerous search term, with almost 46 percent of the links it returns pointing to sites that are no good.
What are the safest search terms? Oh, there are so many. At the bottom of the enormous list of keywords that McAfee checked out, you'll find such tame searches as "david blaine," "home depot," "furry lobster," "human quadrupeds" and even "tom delay." Well, there you have it: To stay safe online, keep away from bearshare, embrace Tom DeLay.