For Google users like Tim Yu, the threat of spyware isn't so easy to stare down.
Yu, a Stanford University student, recently found that one of his family's computers was infected with a program called "BrowserAid/Featured Results," which was delivering additional and unwanted pop-up ads atop Google results. He managed to rid the computer of that application, but a similar, unidentifiable program could not be eliminated.
"I removed it from the registry, but this one heals itself," Yu said. Spyware makers, he said, are getting more sophisticated.
And that's a problem for Google, as new strains of spyware attempt to profit from the highly popular search engine and its lucrative pay-per-click advertising program by altering search results pages or delivering pop-up windows with their own lists of text ads.
Spyware is a catchall term for software that installs itself on a PC without consumers' knowledge and that tracks computer usage, sometimes with criminal intent. A related breed of software, adware, is designed for less invasive, but more annoying, delivery of advertisements.
An entire industry of spyware and adware has sprouted up to take advantage of search engine ads, which are the most lucrative and fast-growing sector of online advertising. Sales from search advertising are expected to reach about $3.2 billion this year, up from $2.5 billion last year and just less than $1 billion in 2002, according to research firm eMarketer. Google alone is expected to rake in more than $1 billion from advertising this year.
The problem shows no signs of abating. A recent survey reported that nearly one out of every three computers scanned for Trojan horse programs or monitoring software like spyware was infected, according to security software maker Webroot Software. For some in the U.S. Congress, the threat is serious enough to warrant legislation designed to protect consumers.
Google in particular has drawn the attention of interlopers. Researchers for Lavasoft, which sells the popular spyware detection software Ad-aware, have identified one application that targets Google by altering the display of search results. The spyware, known as "Gloggle.Shing," carries a high threat level, according to Lavasoft, because the software installs itself in stealth mode when people visit certain Web sites, which the company did not name.
PestPatrol, another spyware fighter, has named "BrowserAid," along with many of its variants, as an application that affects search results. According to PestPatrol, the software installs itself via downloads from partner sites and delivers pop-up windows displaying ad links when a person searches at Google.
A hard look from LookSmart
And at least one publicly traded Internet company is trying to distance itself from yet another spyware maker preying on Google and other major search providers.
LookSmart, an online search and directory service, said it recently investigated its business partners in an attempt to discover which company had disseminated its text ads over those of Google. The partner had apparently linked it to a Web site called Clickthrutracking.com without permission, allowing that site to display LookSmart text ads over the sponsored results of Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN, as well as those of Google.
The San Francisco-based company sent a letter in June to all of its partners, aiming to bar them from working with Clickthrutracking.com. The company would not disclose the name of the offending business partner, which apparently owns the domain Clicktrutracking.com. According to Whois domain name records, the company is called Search Request and is based in Phoenix. Calls to business license authorities in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., do not reflect a company of that name or address operating in the state. The company's Web site is intermittently out of service.
"We have a blacklist of sites that (our partners) won't allow traffic from, and that list includes Clickthrutracking.com," LookSmart spokesman Dakota Sullivan said. "They will screen that traffic out, and if it slips through, we won't pay for the traffic."
LookSmart's temporary link to this distribution partner highlights the reach of spyware across the Internet industry. Untangling from spyware is becoming as hard for Internet businesses as it is for unsuspecting Web surfers.
The ranks of spyware and adware makers are on the rise, because the technology makes it relatively easy for someone to make money. Google, Yahoo and others collect fees from marketers each time people click on sponsored text ads. Marketers buy into the programs and bid for keywords in hope of reaching people who are searching for a particular product or service.
Major search engines and second-tier search providers distribute those text ads to third-party publishers and split the fees with them when people click. So if a spyware maker can arrange to place text ads over popular search engines, it is set to cash in.
"You would not believe the size and scope of the gray market in this arena," said Elliot Noss, president of Tucows, a downloads site. "It runs the gamut from light gray to dark gray."
The complexity of the ad distribution partnerships is illustrated in Yahoo's recent move to provide Web surfers with a tool to block spyware and viruses on the browser.
Yet the toolbar application does not block advertising software like that from controversial company Claria, formerly known as Gator and one of the largest providers of adware. Through its own tool called Search Scout, Claria delivers text ads from Yahoo's Overture Services in a pop-up window when people search on Google. As much as 30 percent of Claria's revenue is derived from Overture.
In another example of the cottage industry, Internet service provider 550Access.com introduced a toolbar in March that blocks certain ads from search results and replaces them with others.
Google also distributes its text ads to questionable areas of the Web through Applied Semantics, a company it bought last year. When Web site visitors type in a misspelled domain name, they might find a page of related sponsored ads from Google.
Google limited its comments for this story, citing its upcoming $2.7 billion initial public offering. But the company pointed to recent guidelines it published on its Web site regarding downloadable PC software and best practices for the industry to notify consumers of their tactics and give them a way to opt out.
Google has a stake in the business as a destination site that can be affected by third parties out to profit from control of the browser. It's also an application provider that could be affected by legislation meant to ban types of spyware or adware. It develops the Google Toolbar and Deskbar, which help people access search results from a central point on the browser and desktop, respectively. The applications also "phone home" usage data to the company's server if consumers agree to let Google monitor their habits for the sake of improving the service.
Utah and Massachusetts have already enacted laws to restrict types of downloadable software from tracking users and delivering ads. But adware maker WhenU recently contested the Utah law and won a temporary reprieve.
"Google's goal is to provide users with the best search experience," according to a statement on the company's Web site. "We have recently published a set of software principles designed to foster discussion about defining and fighting spyware, and ultimately to contribute to a better user experience online."
Yet Google's IPO prospectus acknowledges--if briefly--the threat facing the company: "New technologies could block our ads, which would harm our business."
Technology experts urge consumers to scan their machines with security or anti-spyware software regularly. Programs they suggest include PestPatrol, Ad-aware, and Spybot Search & Destroy.
"Consumers should be aware of the applications and files residing and running on their machines," said Matt Cobb, vice president of core applications at Internet service provider EarthLink.
Danny Sullivan, editor of industry newsletter Search Engine Watch, said he's had several reports of adware that obstructed Google results over the last six to eight months, and he suspects that there are several different strains.
"The bigger issue is that for advertisers, your paid listings can be distributed in all sorts of ways you don't know about," Sullivan said, "and you may not have a way to discover where they're going."