New research has concluded that despite best efforts to keep search results clean, Google and Bing often serve malware-infected sites among their top search results. This malware (or malicious software) can include sites infected with viruses, Trojans, computer worms, and more, making it extremely important for consumers to pay close attention to what they click.
How are cyber criminals able to fool Google and Bing?
During the course of their research, IT security institute AV-Test found that cyber criminals exploit search operators through the process of search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is used by all major website operators to ensure that sites are searchable. For example, SEO ensures that when you type in a term like “shoes,” your search engine results will include popular websites like Zappos or DSW. However, malware developers use one SEO tactic in particular to infect users’ machines – backlinking.
Backlinks, also known as inbound links, are incoming links to a website. Search engines such as Google and Bing use the number of backlinks a website has as one indication of the popularity or importance of a website. With this in mind, cyber criminals will create a significant number of smaller, fake websites that link to an infected site. Once this network of linked websites is in place, Google and Bing are effectively tricked into believing the infected website is important, ranking that page alongside legitimate sites like Zappos.
In addition to backlinking, malware developers also take advantage of breaking news and popular search topics to integrate keywords that encourage users to click. For example, a cybercriminal might create an infected website called “Boston Donations” to fool users looking for a way to support Boston Marathon victims. All of this work allows the cybercriminal to take advantage of the search operator’s process and deliver malicious software whenever a user clicks on their site. This is known as a “drive-by” download–just clicking on a link and opening it from Google or Bing can install dangerous code on your device.
What can I do to search safely?
Luckily, search engine operators such as Google and Bing are constantly making efforts to remove malicious websites from their results. To make sure that your search results are as safe as possible, I recommend the following search practices:
1) Stick with Yahoo or Google when it comes to search. The AV-Test research concluded that while both Bing and Google had issues with serving malicious content in their results, Bing returned 5x the amount of malicious links than Google.
2) Turn to trusted sources for your news. Cyber criminals take advantage of top news stories to exploit search engine providers. If you are looking for information on breaking news, make sure you only click on results from known websites such as CNN, Fox or Reuters, just to name a few.
3) Keep your software up to date. Infected websites typically take advantage of vulnerabilities in a users software. These vulnerabilities include outdated browsers and add-ons.
You can also guarantee that you have the best possible Internet protection on all devices you search on (tablets, laptops, smartphones, PCs, and Macs) by using security software such as McAfee All Access with McAfee SiteAdvisor installed. SiteAdvisor software adds safety ratings to your browser and search engine results, blocks known bad sites on Android mobile devices, and along with McAfee All Access, also blocks risky links in email, social networking sites, and IM.