Don’t try this at home–not if you want to have a working computer. Search for "Free Screensavers," we’re told, and 64% of the sites you’ll find are the kinds that can gum up your machine with spyware or a computer virus.
A team of researchers, let by Ben Edelman and Hannah Rosenbaum of a British firm called Site Advisor, tried entering 1,394 popular search terms into the web’s most popular search engines–Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL and Ask.com. They came up with a chart you may find both amusing and sobering. Even if you search for something as harmless as "I love you," they report, 19.7% of the links they found on Google were ones they would rate as "red" or "yellow" on their scale of riskiness for malware of some sort or another.
Here’s their list of the eight most dangerous search terms:
1. Free screensavers
6. Download Yahoo Messenger
7. Lime wire
8. Free ringtones
If you follow your own common sense–keep your antivirus software up to date, don’t download software offered by a weird site you don’t know–you’ll probably be fine. Serious searches seem quite safe (I was grateful, personally, to see that "Peter Jennings" scored 0%), but even if you look for "God," say Edelman and Rosenbaum, 1.2% of the hits you’ll get could cause you trouble. (Sponsored links–the ones paid for by advertisers–tended to be somewhat riskier to visit than "organic" ones–the ones the search engine found on its own.)
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. He describes himself as a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard, having already gotten his law degree there.