Swindles and Spam, Lurking in Your Search Results

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Most of our ventures onto the Web still begin with a search -- a fact readily exploited by spammers and swindlers who rely on excessive use of keywords, link exchanging and other manipulation techniques to push their content higher in the list of search results, hoping you will click on them.

Though the major search engines discourage such deception, that hasn't stopped companies from engaging in such practices -- and fooling users in the process.

Even someone with decades of search expertise, like Duane Forrester, a senior product manager at Bing, can fall victim to a Web scam. "I was looking to buy a new lens for a digital camera, and I found a store that had one for $200 less than everyone else," Mr. Forrester said. "Turns out the store was a fly-by-night shop out of the U.K. that sold broken products. I called the company and got my refund, but I still fell into the pothole."

Millions of "dirty" sites litter the Web. The Web security firm Blue Coat Systems concluded in its 2012 security report that search engines topped the list of spam entry points, before e-mail and other sources. At a minimum, off-topic spam results are a nuisance. More perniciously, spammers can infect computers with malware and phish for sensitive personal data like credit card information. Here are some ways to avoid search spam.

LEARN TO SPOT SPAM Mastering the art of smarter searching won't always shield you from getting spammed. That is why, as a first step, you should look before you click.

Don't assume that the top results are the most useful or even the safest. Look at the letters that follow the period at the end of a Web address. Top-level domains like .com and .info, as well as top-level country code domains like .fr (for France) are prime targets for spammers. One reason is that spammers know that spelling mistakes happen. It's common to forget the "o" in a dot-com search, for instance. So if you want a site that ends in .com, but mistakenly type in .cm (the country code for Cameroon), you might get spam instead of the page you wanted.

Many sites will also take advantage of Web address shorteners like Bitly to direct you to an unsavory source. So be cautious about clicking those truncated URLs as well.

Both Google and Bing tip searchers off to potentially unsafe sites, wherever possible. If a search engine warns you that a site is potentially unsafe, browse at your own risk. And as Mr. Forrester's tale shows, a site that is offering discounts that appear too good to be true may indeed be offering deals too good to be true.

In addition, before making any purchase on a lesser-known site, take a look around. Do you see a listed address? If so, map it. Look for the e-mail address. If your only contact option is a Gmail or Yahoo account, something may be awry.

A site's language, too, may be a giveaway, especially when you are conducting a local search. Flagrant grammar and spelling errors may signal that the owner is based elsewhere. And if you spot the term "free" scrawled across a Web site, proceed with caution.

SOME SITES ARE RISKIER It is important to know what separates a potential spam site from a harmless one. The difference may be counterintuitive. For example, pornography domains may be safer to browse than some mainstream content. According to Cisco's 2013 annual security report, "online advertisements are 182 times more likely to deliver malicious content than pornographic sites."

Matt Cutts, who heads the Web spam team at Google, said this was because pornography sites were well monitored. "People who run porn sites are tech-savvy, and they pay a lot of attention to visitors, so they notice unusual things quickly," he said

Though a search result may be safe, it may not be useful. A prime example is Yahoo Answers. The community-driven site consistently ranks high across the major engines on question-related queries. But the quality of its answers varies greatly and the site is often more useful for a chuckle than legitimate insight. Learn to spot and selectively skip these sites.

Similarly, instructional sites like eHow may place a higher premium on quantity over quality content, so you might not find exactly what you are searching for there.

Be wary of Web pages that oversell you on their supposed legitimacy. One Better Business Bureau logo is fine. A series of logos promoting a site's professionalism or expertise is a red flag. Almost anyone with rudimentary Photoshop skills can create and attach fake logos on to a site. You can crosscheck any awards by going to the source.

It is also a good idea to check whether a Web site is certified. The Department of Homeland Security offers more information on this.

SOME SEARCHES ATTRACT SPAM Some searches are more enticing to spammers than others. Credit report queries are a top target. Remember, there are only three major national credit agencies. If you are using an outside party to check credit reports, do so carefully.

Be extra cautious when conducting travel and insurance searches. Some sites create travel tips for the express purpose of drawing you into their hotel or other travel-related business. It is best to seek out travel information from a more trusted site.

Search results for lyrics, videos and screen savers also pose an increased risk. For example, pages with downloadable content, like those offering ring tones, provide an enticing built-in audience for spammers because the user is actively looking to install software.

When you search also matters. Spammers tend to come out in force on Cyber Monday and other big shopping periods.

Nor is spam limited to text. A site with many broken image links may be designed that way intentionally. It is easier to sell an outdated model if customers don't see the product. Use a reverse image search service like TinEyeto find out if an image has been pulled from another site.

BEEF UP YOUR BROWSER As the search leader, Google is targeted more than any other engine. Chrome users can install a spam extension that lets users identify potential spam sites and block them from their search results by clicking on a "spam" text link next to each result. You can also change your Google ad settings and opt out of the company's advertising cookies.

SEEK OUT CUSTOM ENGINES Another way to avoid getting spam -- and to get more relevant results -- is to go directly to a specialized search engine, where the results are already filtered for your query. You could go to Google Books for book searches and know you will more likely get book results for "The Great Gatsby," say, and not offers for "Gatsby" T-shirts. There are also engines like Science.gov and Scirus -- both useful for science-related queries. Another valuable specialized engine is iSEEK Education. Lastly, you can use the image service Picsearch to filter photo searches.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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