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Study: Music, Tech Search Terms Riskiest

Search terms related to music and technology are most likely to return sites with spyware and other malicious code, a new study finds.

Some 42 percent of the results using the term "screensavers," for example, led to sites flagged with a "red" warning or a cautionary "yellow" by McAfee Inc.'s SiteAdvisor service. Other keywords McAfee deemed risky include names of file-sharing software -- "BearShare," "LimeWire" and "Kazaa."

In many cases, the programs come bundled with adware and toolbars McAfee considers unwanted, according to McAfee's "The State of Search Engine Safety" report, scheduled for release Monday.

Nonetheless, McAfee found it slightly safer to use search engines overall. Although about 4 percent of search results lead to sites deemed risky, that's down from 5 percent a year ago.

"We've seen some incremental steps in the right direction," said Mark Maxwell, senior product manager for SiteAdvisor. "But the average Joe user should be aware there's still plenty to be concerned about."

Risks are greater when clicking on keyword ads that make up much of search companies' revenues: According to McAfee, 7 percent of such links produce risky sites, down from 8.5 percent a year ago.

SiteAdvisor rates sites based on whether they result in spyware, viruses, excessive pop-up ads, junk e-mail or other threats. The study was conducted by running about 2,300 popular keywords through the top five search engines -- Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, Time Warner Inc.'s AOL and IAC/InterActive Corp.'s Ask.

Search companies have taken steps to mitigate the risks. Google, for instance, sometimes flags links to sites it deems risky, and McAfee found a notable drop in risk when using Google, AOL and Ask. Ask and AOL get search ads from Google, and AOL uses Google to power regular search results as well.

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