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Analysis: Paid search results often not worth the click

Sometimes they include links to spyware or shady companies.

By Robert McMillan
February 6, 2006 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - Microsoft Corp. doesn't think much of Secure Computer LLC. It says that the company and its partners have "exploited computer users" and that Secure Computer's antispyware product is of "questionable effectiveness." Last week, it went so far as to join forces with the Washington state attorney general and sue the White Plains, N.Y.-based company over its business practices.

And yet, more than a week after the lawsuits were filed, Microsoft is still running ads for the company's Spyware Cleaner software on its MSN Web site. Why? Welcome to the murky world of paid search, where the ads that pop up can lead to big money for the search companies -- and big headaches for unsuspecting users.

Richard Smith found out about the dangers of sponsored search links last December, after his wife, Faina, did a Google search for the term "Stowe Weather," looking to find the latest weather conditions in Vermont. A sponsored link took her to a page that appeared to provide weather reports, but was in fact "a drive-by download page in disguise," according to Smith, an Internet security consultant based in Boston.

After Faina complained that her Internet Explorer links toolbar had vanished, Smith examined the computer and found that she had unwittingly installed an invasive piece of software called WeatherStudio, which is produced by Miva Inc., a Fort Myers, Fla.-based online marketing company.

"It looked pretty deceptive to me," Smith said. "My wife was looking for weather up in Stowe, Vt., and it kept seeming to imply that you would get weather information by just clicking a couple of things. But when you read the details, what it was really saying was you were getting some software."

The software came from a weather search, but three other search terms are also especially attractive to dodgy search marketers: "spyware," "smileys" and "screen savers."

A Google search for "spyware," turns up more than 100 paid results. Searching for "spyware cleaner" on MSN's search engine turns up a paid link that takes the user to Secure Computer's site, where Web users are told that the product is "not available for download or sale until further notice." Secure Computer has acknowledged that there are problems with Spyware Cleaner, and it pulled the product from the market shortly after being sued last week.

The practice of unsavory spyware advertising is particularly troubling, because it often catches consumers at a vulnerable time, as they desperately look for a way to fix their infected computers.

"They're confused and in some cases frightened," said Eric Howes, director of malware research at antispyware

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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