Google, Live, Yahoo run dubious scanner ads

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

You’ve heard of “adware” and “spyware” and the antispyware products that are designed to eliminate them.

A third category of software — “rogue antispyware” — promotes itself deceptively and yet is allowed to advertise on such major search engines as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Live.com.

Spyware Warrior publishes ‘rogue’ software list

For years, a Web site known as Spyware Warrior has been at the forefront of exposing fraudulent and misleading antispyware products. Its page of so-called Rogue/Suspect Anti-Spyware Products names scores of products that exhibit suspicious behaviors.

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Many of these curious downloads, according to Spyware Warrior, install the very problems they claim to cure, generate false positives to trick users into buying a “remedy,” and use aggressive or misleading advertising.

Sadly, you can find ads for many of these suspect antispyware products on popular search engines. Typically, these ads appear as “sponsored links,” “sponsored sites,” or “sponsor results” on Google, Yahoo, and Windows Live (the search engine behind Microsoft’s MSN.com). The ads are paid for by the software companies and appear whenever a keyword in a search matches one that the advertiser has bid on.

Search ads promote false-positive scans

Table 1, below, shows some of the products on Spyware Warrior’s “rogue” list that advertise on Google, Live.com, and Yahoo as of this writing.

According to Spyware Warrior, each of the products in Table 1 scans consumers’ PCs for spyware but then presents “false positives,” reporting problems even when there are none. The purpose is to convince you to buy the advertiser’s product to “solve” the situation the scan found.

Spyware Warrior also accuses two of the products in the table — PAL Spyware Remover and SpySpotter — of aggressive or deceptive advertising.

Table 1. Questionable ads found on Google, Windows Live, and Yahoo

Product
Google
Live
Yahoo
AdwareDeluxe
Yes

Yes
AdwarePatrol
Yes

Yes
ETD Scanner
Yes

Yes
PAL Spyware Remover
Yes

Yes
SpySpotter
Yes

Yes
AlertSpy
Yes
Yes
Yes
Allume Internet Cleanup
Yes
Yes
Yes
SpyBouncer
Yes
Yes
Yes
SpyOnThis

Yes

Yes

Yes

In some cases, ironically, search engines display ads for these products side-by-side with ads offering to remove the same product from victims’ PC.

Try a search for spyonthis in Google. You’ll not only find an ad for the product from its “official site,” you’ll also find several ads that say, “Remove SpyOnThis” and “SpyOnThis Removal.”

To confuse matters further, some search-engine ads come from sites that pose as neutral software reviewers but actually are merely resellers for the questionable products.

For example, AdwarePatrol and PAL Spyware Remover are featured in Yahoo ads that read “AdwarePatrol Good or Bad?” and “PAL Spyware Remover Good or Bad?” The ads link to a site named SpyDiagnostic.com, which appears to provide an objective review of the products. Clicking the link, however, takes you to a page that’s identical to the main page of the product itself.

Using a safe-site tool such as McAfee’s Site Advisor provides you with some protection against ads for suspicious antispyware products. Site Advisor, for example, flags AdwarePatrol.com and Palsol.com (the site behind PAL Spyware Remover) as undesirable or negative. The tool, however, gives a green light to the SpyDiagnostic.com version of the same sites.

Search engine ad policies not enforced

Google, Yahoo, and Live.com all have policies that prohibit ads for deceptive products. Yet these search engines accept advertising for products found by Spyware Warrior to be “rogue” software.

Yahoo’s editorial guidelines for sponsored searches instruct advertisers to “choose a display URL that accurately reflects the site found at your submitted landing page.” If you search for allume internet cleanup you see an ad with the URL www.stuffit.com displayed. But click on the ad and you’re taken instead to the Internet Cleanup page on the Allume Web site.

Both products, StuffIt and Internet Cleanup, are owned by the same company. Site Advisor gives a red flag (undesirable) to the Allume and Internet Cleanup pages. But it gives a green light to the StuffIt product page.

Asked about these apparent policy violations, a Yahoo representative said, “When these sorts of claims are brought to our attention, we evaluate them in light of our existing guidelines and take appropriate action.”

Diana Adair, a spokeswoman for Google, said: “If we become aware of a product being advertised using AdWords that uses false positives to mislead users into purchase, we will disallow the ads as soon as possible. Google is committed to ensuring the safety and security of our users and our advertisers. We actively work to detect and remove such rogue security sites in both our ad network and in our search results. We have manual and automated processes in place to detect and enforce these policies.”

A Microsoft spokesman, Brad van Niekerk, wrote: “Any software — not just Spyware — that is downloaded or takes an action not expressly chosen by the user is against the terms of conditions and not allowed. We are constantly looking into Spyware and if we find advertisers or publishers who violate the terms of our policies we will take their ads down.” He added, “We have no plans to change any background mechanism on Live Search advertisers at this time.”

I sent e-mails last week seeking comments from the makers of the products listed in Table 1. By press time, I hadn’t received responses from any of the companies.

Consumers rely on search engines not only to find basic information but also to locate safe, helpful products that live up to their claims. The search engines have clearly taken the time to craft nice-sounding policies to support that goal.

But for many questionable antispyware products, enforcement of these policies is sadly lacking. It’s time for Google, Live, and Yahoo to look at their advertisers and take immediate action against deceptive products instead of accepting tainted ad dollars.

I’d like to thank reader Donald Friend, who sent us information about scanning software that makes false reports. We’re sending him a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for submitting a tip that we printed. Send us your tips using the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He is also a contributing editor of PC World Magazine, where he has written a monthly column since 1992, and co-author of 101 Windows Tips & Tricks (Peachpit) with Jesse Berst and Charles Bermant.
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