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 techniques to push their content higher on the list of search results, hoping you will click on them. 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 such as .com and .info, as well as top-level country code domains such as .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, you might get spam instead of the page you wanted.
Both Google and Bing tip off searchers to potentially unsafe sites, wherever possible. 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 email 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 website, 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 counter-intuitive. 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 is because pornography sites are 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.
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.
It is also a good idea to check whether a Web site is certified. The Department of Homeland Security offers more information on this at tinyurl.com/qd6pnq9.
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.
Search results for lyrics, videos and screen savers also pose an increased risk. For example, pages with downloadable content, such as those offering ring tones, provide an enticing built-in audience for spammers because the user is actively looking to install software.
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.