For most Internet users, journeys across the Web start with searches. Sadly, this fact is with alarming frequency exploited by shady individuals using link exchanges, excessive keyword use and other techniques of manipulation to push their devious content high up within search engine results.
While all major search engines - such as, for instance Google, Bing and Yahoo - do their utmost to discourage and prevent such deceptive practises, it does not stop these individuals - or companies - from trying and often successfully fooling even experienced users. How users are affected varies among the millions of 'dirty' Websites littering the Internet.
Some sites may offer goods at significantly reduced prices only for buyer to find they either never receive these goods or the goods they do receive are faulty and refunds are almost impossible to obtain. Others simply use search engine results as a way to spread spam, or worse still, infect users' computers with malware or phish for credit card information or other sensitive personal data.
One thing is for sure: according to a security report published by Blue Coat Systems, a Web security company, in 2012, search engines represent the highest entry point for spam - well ahead of e-mails and other potential sources. There are, however, ways to protect yourself against search related spam - here are some of them.
The first preventative step is to be careful when entering search terms and looking closely at the results before clicking on a site's link, because the top entries on search result pages are not necessarily the most relevant or safest sites. Top level domains - such as, for instance, .info or .com - and country code domains like .de (Germany) or .fr (France) are prime targets for spammers - especially when spelling mistakes happen. A common mistake, for example, is to miss out the 'o' in .com. Accidentally typing .cm (which happens to be the country code for Cameroon) could easily lead you to a spam site.
Truncated URLs created by shortening programmes like Bitly and others are also often used by spammers to lead Internet users astray. Whenever possible, Bing and Google will warn users of potentially unsafe sites - these warnings should be heeded, as ignoring them could lead to all sorts of trouble.
If entering unfamiliar sites, it pays to look for an actual address - and mapping it - and taking a closer look at the contact e-mail address, too, before making a purchase. Flagrant spelling and grammar errors may also point to something fishy going on - especially when they appear on sites found through local searches.
Checking companies out through sites like the 'Better Business Bureau' and so on will also help, as is verifying that a site is certified.