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In the past I've relied on parental filters and anti-virus software. Well, now that I've been forced to use these safety checks, I've find that they are very useful. I sure like checking on a website before I risk browsing it. Even though it doesn't replace any of my existing security measures - except perhaps the parental filter - this additional layer of security is real useful.
Rating and scanning
The two types of safety check for a web address or URL are rating and scanning. Scan the website for threats (right now when I need it) or rate the reputation of the website using other sources of information: what people think of it, whether it has been associated with any dishonest or illegal activity, and what other security databases have on record which can include the results of your past scans.
Safety checks are easy to install and use
These products are easy to install and use because there are few options to configure. Most run in the background while you browse the Web and only pop-up when they identify a problem. The products mainly install as a browser add-on for each supported web browser. Just be warned that browsing can be noticeably slower and will usually crawl on a dial-up connection or if you run several products at the same time. Often there is a single button added to the toolbar (as with WOT) and sometimes an entire new toolbar (as with LinkExtend).
Online safety checks are an alternative
If you don't want to install more software on your computer then you can use an online service. You manually check websites by typing or copying the web address into the online check website. They are less convenient but are an effective option particularly to get a second opinion. I've included the best in this article but the remainder can be found in the full list of products reviewed.
Web browsers have built-in safety checks
Many of you will realize that you are already using an internet safety rating as a feature of your web browser. For example, Microsoft calls it SmartFilter for Internet Explorer, and Firefox has options to block "reported attack sites" and "reported web forgeries". Apart from Internet Explorer, the main web browsers source their safety data from other vendors: Firefox, Chrome and Safari use data from Google Safe Browsing; and Opera relies on AVG. I tested them in the same way as the other products and services. In terms of detecting bad websites they were in the middle third of the products I reviewed.
Typically, the products present their results with color-coded symbols as shown in the image from Web of Trust (WOT). The WOT scorecard uses rating symbols that have five levels of color from dark green for trustworthy, yellow for concern, and orange to red for dangerous. Grey is used for unrated sites. Most programs work in a similar way, placing an icon beside web links so that moving the mouse over the icon will display the rating; and clicking on the icon or pop-up displays the full scorecard. Online meta-scanners, which use the results of many different scans, are the main exception. Although many use similar colors their rating is usually the fraction of the tests for problems found e.g. 9 of 15, 9/15.
Criteria for this review
I've rated these products by looking at six criteria:
- Ratings that are reliable with more information close at hand.
- Scanning that doesn't slow me down too much.
- Warning about and blocking of risky sites.
- Searching options including icons that link to the full rating.
- Compatibility and integration with the web browsers and operating systems.
- Detecting web pages and sites that have active or reported threats
WOT (Web of Trust) installed rater
WOT (Web of Trust) from WOT Services is the Editor's Choice because it leads in many areas: compatibility and integration with seamless operation; flexible options; searching; warning and blocking; and user input. It only loses in areas that it doesn't compete in: meta-rating (combining the results from several raters as in Link Extend) and scanning.
WOT is the best implemented and the best documented rater - you can even view the source code. It is also the most heavily criticized. For these reasons I'm using it to discuss many of the features that can be found in raters.
The WOT scorecard shows ratings for four WOT Rating Categories. Don't confuse these with the sixteen Community (user) comment categories. The comment categories do not affect the ratings. It's a shame that many critics of WOT do not realize this.
- Trustworthiness - WOT calculates this with information from trusted sources and user feedback.
- Vendor Reliability - Does this website provide a positive shopping experience? What's the product or service like? Is the information factual or fabricated?
- Privacy - Can the website be trusted with your personally identifiable information? Does it produce spam or phishing schemes?
- Child Safety - Is the website safe for young children? Does it have material (e.g. pornography), games (e.g. age-restricted games), multimedia (e.g. music with explicit lyrics), or forums (e.g. political or religious viewpoints) that is better reserved for adults?
Warning and blocking
WOT is very good at warning and blocking. You decide how to handle each of the four rating categories. Specify the level of danger you are prepared to accept - red, orange, or yellow - and then whether you want a warning or a block. You can also include unrated sites if you don't want them to slip through by default. WOT's block screen will redirect you to WOT or open in a new tab, but will not take you to a risky site unless you specifically chose to ignore the warning. It's up to you which step you take next:
- Ignore the WOT warning and go to the website;
- Rate the site if you disagree with WOT's rating;
- View rating details and comments about the website;
- Use your browser to take some other action: surf to a different website, close the tabbed window, go back, use a bookmark, etc.
Like most raters, WOT has a safe search option. It's provided by Surf Canyon based on Bing. WOT also has more search options to choose from. You can select the rating you want to see in the search results: the default "optimized" rating, the lowest rating, or the trustworthiness rating by itself. WOT ratings also appear for more search engines and other services than any other product:
- English search engines: AOL, Ask, Bing, Google, Yahoo!
- Non-english search engines: China - Baidu; Czech - Seznam, WebHledani; Korea - Naver; Russia - Rambler, Yandex;
- Metasearch engines and reference: Dogpile, Inquick, Search, Wikipedia
- Social networks and messaging: Facebook, Gmail, Mail Ru, Twitter, Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail
WOT has a comprehensive set of sixteen categories for user ratings and comments. When I collated these categories for all the programs I reviewed, I found that WOT covers all of them except three. As is expected, the majority of ten cater for negative ratings, there are five for positive ratings, and one for neutral comments.
McAfee SiteAdvisor installed rater
I found McAfee Site Advisor to be solid but unexceptional. It falls well short of WOT in its features, ratings, and safety. It just didn't warn me about enough bad websites which is surprising because the online check at McAfee Threat Intelligence does. Despite its average performance in detecting threats, it did find problems such as browser exploits that WOT was not aware of. I also like using the website report which includes a list of downloads and a diagram of linked sites.
Like WOT, it supports all the main english-speaking search engines.plus several foreign-language portals. But compared with WOT, it runs on fewer systems and web browsers. It was slower. In most areas it has has fewer features. Some things I wanted (e.g. email and IM link scanning) require an upgrade to the paid version, SiteAdvisor Live. User ratings and comments are less useful and appear to be totally ignored for rating purposes anyway. I couldn't even challenge errors of fact that other users had made. A small irritation in search results is that it's icon was obscured by the Web Security Guard icon and itself obscured other icons (M86 Secure Browsing, Norton Safe Web).
If you already use McAfee products then there will be some synergy such as using your existing registration. SiteAdvisor is also one part of McAfee Web Security which also provides the SECURE trustmark and SECURE shopping for websites. I think that it suffers from being the least important part which is a problem common to several of these products that have commercial products for sale.
AVG LinkScanner installed scanner
I have ranked AVG LinkScanner third because a scanner is useful if you don't have anti-virus on your computer that checks website links. Even though it was not very good at detecting threats it did detect and disarm threats from websites that the raters said were OK. This is the advantage of scanners.
LinkScanner is a well organized package. It looks like other AVG programs, installs in a similar manner, and is presented in the same modular manner. That's because it is assembled from some modules of AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition: LinkScanner, Security Toolbar, and Update Manager. So if you're using AVG Anti-Virus then you do not need need AVG LinkScanner. Two further modules, parental controls and online backup, are indicated as installable but are not free.
The LinkScanner module has two protective components:
- Surf-Shield checks websites for threats and runs independently of the browser. Scanners always slow you down but if they are based on anti-virus technology they will usually work with any browser. That's why Surf-Shield will still be working even if you switch off the browser add-ons. If you have a compatibility problem with other anti-virus software then turning off Surf-Shield will allow you to confirm this without uninstalling the whole program.
- Search-Shield gets ratings for any website address and inserts the safety ratings into your search results. It also runs as, or is linked with, the add-on called Safe Search. Search-Shield works with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari but not Opera.
The AVG Security Toolbar is an add-on so it can be disabled but you will lose easy access to the LinkScanner options, AVG Secure Search, and the Page Status for the current web page. Incidentally, you can also check any website address by clicking on the AVG LinkScanner component within AVG LinkScanner in the system tray.
LinkExtend installed meta-rater
Linkular's LinkExtend is the best installed meta-rater and it has an excellent reputation with users. But it really only works well with Firefox. The versions for Internet Explorer and Chrome force you to check the ratings manually by going to the sources. In addition, the Chrome version won't give ratings on search lists.
LinkExtend uses several other products for its safety rating: WOT, SiteAdvisor, Safe Web, Google Safe Browsing, Browser Defender, and Web Security Guard.. Just be careful, WOT can identify a bad site with active threats but LinkExtend's weighting algorithm does not always give it a bad safety rating. It also provides ratings for child safety and company ethics, and a lot of other information about a website's popularity, web traffic, age, my last visit, etc. As a result it has the busiest and largest toolbar in your browser. LinkExtend also has extensive options: the services to be used for each rating; what appears on the toolbar; what appears on the context menu; etc.
If you like quick access to a lot of information then LinkExtend is attractive. Just remember that it doesn't put up warning or block screens in Firefox and Internet Explorer. It does put up a warning in Chrome but well after the page has already loaded. It only provides ratings for result lists from two search engines: Google and Yahoo!. It is slow and seems to be slowest in Chrome. You will be able to see the website rating change as it checks with each source. As a meta-rater, it is only as good as the best rating it is given. More often than not, you won't know which one you should trust. You will probably need more information to compare the differing ratings so you will discover that you will have to go to each rater's website. That takes too long. For me, that has meant LinkExtend is only a distraction where I find myself saying "Oh, that is interesting!" or "I wonder why ...?". I decided to disable it temporarily only to discover that LinkExtend keeps re-enabling itself.
TrendProtect installed rater
I have included Trend Micro's TrendProtect for one important reason. Those using Internet Explorer 6 or 7 need all the help they can get to keep safe. If Trend Micro developed it to work with all the browsers I would rate it much more highly. It correctly rates many bad websites but leaves too many good sites unrated. It also needs to work with more than just Google and Yahoo! searches. It was unusual because it uses content categories in a similar way to parental filters but without doing any blocking. So it not only warns about websites with poor ratings but also warns you if your safe website is in one of the categories you selected.
These online safety checks are less convenient but very useful.
VirusTotal online meta-rater/scanner + add-ons
VirusTotal has browser add-ons VTZilla and VTChromizer for Firefox and Chrome respectively. They put a shortcut to VirusTotal on the context menu for any web link so you can start the rating and scanning from there rather than having to go to the VirusTotal website.
VirusTotal checks websites against 13 rating services and blacklists. It also scans with 42 anti-virus engines. This battery of tests is its strength. Its weakness is that the reporting takes too long (minutes instead of seconds) when compared with the installed raters and scanners. But being web-based it will run with every browser. You can rate websites with comments in any of one positive category (benign) and five negative categories (browser exploit, malicious. malware download, phishing site, spam link). If you sign-up your ratings carry more weight than anonymous ratings. As is usual with many of these scanners, you are given the anti-virus scanner name, version, last update date and, most importantly, the result of the scan.
Trend Micro Site Safety online rater
Trend Micro Site Safety gives a simple rating with the category of threat. It has equivalent accuracy to the other Trend Micro products so it is very good. If it had an installable version that would be recommended as a top product. I know that there is TrendProtect but it only works with Internet Explorer. While Web Protection Add-on works for all browsers it is only trial software.
URLVoid online rater
URLVoid from NoVirusThanks Company is very similar to VirusTotal. It uses 17 rating services and blacklists but only 6 anti-virus scanners which makes it less effective. The rating and scanning are initiated separately so it is also less convenient. It is easier to see if there is a problem because results are color-coded: green for Clean, yellow for Suspicious, red for Dangerous/Infected, and gray for Unrated. URLVoid's website is a beta version but I had no problems and anyway it is less risky for my computer configuration than the installable betas like TrafficLight and Browser Guard.
Many online checkers have a lot of other tools. URLVoid has more than most: scan a file, scan an IP address, analyze a website for other issues, download a website's code without browsing it, unshorten URLs, etc.
McAfee Threat Intelligence online rater
You can search the McAfee's Threat Intelligence threat library for a URL or use one of the other categories including IP address, DNS server, malware name or the name of the vulnerability. In my tests it was nearly twice as effective as McAfee Site Advisor in identifying websites with active threats.
Related Products and Links
General Security Advice
- Security Advice Wizard
- Probably the Best Security List in the World
- Safe Computing in Under an Hour
- How to Stay Safe While Online
- Gizmo's Guide to Securing Your PC
- How to Surf More Securely
- Best Free Security Diet Plan
Resident Security Products
- Best Free Antivirus Software
- Best Free Browser Protection Utility
- Best Free Firewall
- Best Free Intrusion Prevention and Detection Utility (HIPS)
On-Demand Antimalware Products
- Best Free Adware-Spyware-Scumware Remover
- Best Free Rootkit Scanner
- Best Free Trojan Scanner/Trojan Remover
- Spyware Removal Guide
- Best Free Internet Safety Check
- Best Free Software Update Monitor
- How to Improve Security When Using a Public Terminal
- Best Free Password Manager
- Best Free Anonymous Surfing Service
- Best Free Encryption Utility
- How to Reduce Spam
Quick Decision Guide
These three questions will help you to get a shortlist of the products that might best suit you.
Note that online services are in italic.
What operating system do you use?
|See the next question||
WOT (for Firefox or Internet Explorer);
TrendProtect (for Internet Explorer);
WOT or other bookmarklet;
What Windows web browser do you use?
|Mozilla Firefox||Internet Explorer||Google Chrome||Apple Safari||Opera|
How well do you want to be warned about web sites with active threats?
Malware Blacklist; MalcOde;
Quick Selection Guide
WOT (Web of Trust)
Trend Micro Site Safety
McAfee Threat Intelligence