SiteAdvisor: Web Browsing Just Got a Whole Lot Safer

By Adam Stone
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Among the security applications designed to safeguard your browsing, most companies take a defensive approach. They wait for the spyware, adware, and other nasties to come near, and then beat them back with diverse protective measures. But why wait for the snakes to slither up your leg before you start clubbing them? Wouldn't it make more sense to stay out of the swamp altogether?

McAfee SiteAdvisor takes a different route. Small, handy and free, SiteAdvisor scans Web sites for malicious code, then alerts you to these sites, warning you to stay away in order to avoid potential problems.

If you register with a site, will you be flooded with spam? If you accept a download, will be you taking on malicious programs along with your desired software? It sure would be nice to know in advance, and that's the knowledge SiteAdvisor says it can deliver.

Casting a Wide Net
The company claims comprehensive reach — SiteAdvisor developers say they have evaluated Web sites covering 95 percent of Web traffic and downloaded and tested more than 750,000 pieces of software.

SiteAdvisor uses a number of criteria to determine its safety ratings. Developers evaluate a Web site's e-mail and download practices using proprietary data collection and analysis techniques. They tour the Web site looking for pop-ups and other annoyances. Then they look for excessive connections to other sites, which they interpret as a warning sign.

If a site offers downloads, the developers check them for viruses as well as for any bundled adware, spyware or other unwanted programs. Testers complete sign-up forms using a one-time use e-mail address so that any subsequent e-mail can be tracked.

SiteAdvisor accepts no payment from rated sites, so ratings can be presumed to be objective and fairly applied.

You'll need Internet Explorer or Firefox to use SiteAdvisor, but assuming you pass this hurdle, the rest is easy. The application downloads, fires up, asks your permission to proceed, and then puts itself in place as a plug-in. Bring up a Web page and the SiteAdvisor button on the toolbar will deliver a color-coded reading: Green for safe site, yellow for questionable and red for sites you should avoid.

To learn more about a site, SiteAdvisor offers a pull-down menu whose 'View Site Details' delivers a full run-down on the site including the volume of spam you'll get if you register, any questionable downloads and other salient details.

Adding Safety to the Search

Beyond the basics, SiteAdvisor's best feature is its ability to rate your Google, Yahoo and MSN search results before you even start clicking. On each page of search results, SiteAdvisor places a color-coded check mark beside each return, telling you in advance whether that result has a safe or unsafe reading. This feature in particular fulfills SiteAdvisor's promise to prevent you from landing on questionable sites.

SiteAdvisor's feedback can be voluminous, for those who feel like digging deep. Click the button for details, for example, and ask to see e-mail details. You'll get a thorough procedural rundown: How many e-mails were received after signing up, how often they arrived, and even a graphic display showing the appearance of those messages in a typical inbox.

If SiteAdvisor has a shortcoming, it's that the makers have not yet tested every site out there. But then again, it's a big Web. And while it's true that sites can change, meaning a green yesterday may not be a green tomorrow, SiteAdvisor claims to retest often. And you can be certain of one thing, at least: Red sites do mean trouble.

There is some good news here for Web browsers in general. SiteAdvisor reports that in its extensive studies, only five percent of sites have come up red and two percent have come up yellow. Sites with screensavers, free games and contests tend to be the most problematic.

The downside: People unknowingly click on an estimated 175 million red sites each month in search engine results alone, according to SiteAdvisor. Which may be why a piece of prophylactic programming like SiteAdvisor could do a lot of people a world of good.

Pros: Rates Web sites for safety before you visit, plug-ins for both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox available, it's free 

Cons: Not all Web sites are rated — newer, unrated sites could pose risks

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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This article was originally published on August 02, 2006
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