Safe Surfing Toolbars

By | March 9, 2011
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Once upon a time, Ben Edelman, a really smart guy who fought – and still fights – against the scams, spyware and trickery on the Internet, invented a toolbar called “Site Advisor”. And we saw it and said “It is good.” And it was.

In those days, browsers didn’t come with anti-phishing protection, and Site Advisor was a great tool; it helped users avoid being scammed and tricked by phishing sites and other unsavory sites with less than honorable intentions.

As with so many things that are really good, big companies – some, whose only motivation is money and profits – come along and snatch up the good stuff and use them to goad users into buying other products and increase their profits. It’s all about the money. And when it’s all about the money, you can be sure of one thing: It’s not all about you. The standard capitalistic, business model shows that competition will (eventually) weed out the weak or bad products. But we’re talking about the brave new world here – we’re talking about The Internet. Rules which worked in the old world don’t necessarily work in the new world.

Anyway, McAfee bought Site Advisor and now uses it as a tool to sell other McAfee product – including a “Professional” version of Site Advisor. You really have to laugh at how the word “Professional” is thrown around. There isn’t a professional in the world who’d use McAfee’s Site Advisor, at least none we can think of. Most professionals can tell a good site from a bad site or a phishing site without McAfee’s help – or even a browser’s anti-phishing protection. So who are the professionals out there that these professional versions are for?

The Internet is nothing if not viral. One success breeds another. After Site Advisors’ success, a company called Web Of Trust decided to capitalize on the safe surfing toolbar craze that Site Advisor started. But WOT had a different idea. Instead of just warning users of dangerous sites, they decided to be even more subjective and tell you which sites to avoid – a sort of glorified censorship toolbar.

And we will be honest and tell you this: At first we were very excited to see that McAfee finally had some competition and we jumped on the WOT bandwagon. We installed it even though we know a good site from a bad site, a scam from a deal, and a trick from a treat. If we recommend something, you can be sure that we use it.

It didn’t take more than a few months to see how WOT worked. It didn’t take too long for us to see that they had fallen into “the more the better” trap. In other words, the more “bad” things WOT’s toolbar detects, the better its users think it is working for them. Of course that’s not true, but it does cause people to think it is. WOT has grown exponentially and is now a major competitor to McAfee – no easy task considering McAfee is a very large and established, publically-traded corporation.

McAfee’s Site Advisor is bad enough, but we don’t think users need a toolbar to be a “Consumer’s Report” toolbar – giving users slated, biased, opinions about products or services they’ve never tested – or even checked out. User opinions of products or services are important but should never be used as a basis for ruining a product or site’s reputation. As most of you, who’ve read forums on the Internet, those who are satisfied with a product or service are less likely to comment about it on forums – in most cases. But the ones who had a bad experience or who had problems, are the most vocal. People do love to complain, and sometimes they have a right to complain. But a safe surfing toolbar’s job is to keep you safe on the Internet, not to rate products or services.

WOT’s problems run deep. Rather than concentrating their efforts to protect their users from truly dangerous sites, WOT uses subjectivity – not objectivity to decide which sites get warnings. The result is that too many sites which are not dangerous get warnings, making WOT inaccurate and sometimes annoying. Site ratings should not be based on hearsay, disgruntled customers’ complaints, or some person’s idea of a protective “HOST file” site. But if you don’t use WOT it won’t matter how or why they rate sites the way they do, right?

You can’t rely on WOT because it warns you that all advertising (except Google) is dangerous or undesirable. Well, it may well be undesirable, but it is not dangerous. Well may it is dangerous if you buy things from infomercials or egg peelers or spray-on hair from Ron Popeil. Seriously, advertising helps pay the bills so that many excellent sites can remain free. We don’t hear people complaining about advertising on TV anymore – it keeps broadcast TV free – and has done so since the beginning of television broadcasts. For a “safe surfing” toolbar to rate ad networks such as DoubleClick as “dangerous” or “bad” is simply baffling to us – especially considering WOT considers Google safe and Google owns DoubleClick. Summarily dismissing most advertising networks as “dangerous” and rating service or programs as undesirable, without testing and trying those products or services, is just plain wrong. It leads to a lot of errors and it has mad WOT’s toolbar a very poor choice for consumers.

So what’s the point? The point is that safe surfing toolbars aren’t necessary anymore, because whether you use Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox, anti-phishing defense is built-in to each of them – and it works. So, if you’re using McAfee’s Site Advisor or WOT or some other safe surfing toolbar, you should think carefully about keeping it. If you’re using the current version of Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer, you have anti-phishing protection and protection from fraudulent sites – and the protection is very good.

One of the basic tenants of good computing is: keep it simple. Don’t install programs you don’t need or you wont use. The less programs you have installed the better. Adding toolbars to any browser should be done with care. Toolbars can and do affect browser performance.

If you don’t need something, don’t install it. Browsers have become better and now include anti-phishing protection. Most of you don’t need a safe-surfing toolbar anymore, especially one that attempts to rate products and services without thoroughly testing them first. Think carefully before installing a safe-surfing toolbar; if you have one installed, ask yourself if you really need it anymore. Is it confusing you? Is it annoying you with warnings on sites you’ve used before and have come to trust? If you’re using the most recent version of any of the top Web browsers, maybe it’s time you uninstalled your safe surfing toolbar.

If you don’t need it, why have it?

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