SiteAdvisor, Preview Version

Not sure whether a site is safe or not? SiteAdvisor says it can help. (Courtesy: InternetWeek)

February 28, 2006

4 Min Read
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There are a lot of anti-spyware, anti-adware, anti-spam, anti-whatever's-bad-for-your-browser applets out there, many of them useful, simple to use, and yes, necessary. However, while it's nice to have a suit of armor to keep off a mugger, it's even nicer to be able to avoid the mugger's neighborhood altogether. That's where SiteAdvisor comes in.

(Click on image to expand.)

SiteAdvisor, which is currently in beta (or, as they call it on the site, the Preview Version), uses Internet bots to "browse sites, download files, and sign-up for things with e-mail addresses." Users access the results by installing SiteAdvisor's software as an extension for Firefox or a plug-in for Internet Explorer.

How? Through an almost ridiculously simple system. SiteAdvisor places green, yellow, or red icons next to each search listing on Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. Sites that force or persuade your system to download unwanted files, or try to fool you into signing up for a lifetime of spam, or link to unsafe sites, or deluge you with pop-ups, get a big red X next to their name. Sites that may link to one or two unsafe sites, or send slightly too many e-mails when you fill in their forms, get a cautious yellow exclamation point. Sites that pass all the tests are rewarded with a nice green checkmark.

Telling All
Want more info? Pass your cursor over the SiteAdvisor icon, and a pop-up balloon tells you how many downloads and site links the bot has registered, and how many e-mails a month you'd get from registering on the site.

But wait -- there's more. Click on the icon, and you get a bunch of charts and illustrations helping to explain -- under the categories of "E-mail," "Downloads," "Link Analysis," and "Annoyances" -- why the site got its rating. Want to drill down even more? A "More detailed analysis" link under the E-mail and Downloads categories will offer ratings for each file available for download on the site, and an explanation of how many e-mails SiteAdvisor received after filling in the site's form. For those of us who are interested in site structure and content, SiteAdvisor isn't only helpful, but can become a black hole of time.

SiteAdvisor also puts a button on your browser that indicates the safety of the current site (using the same green/yellow/red color code). Click on the button and you can view the same information about the site's ratings you get from the search listing icons.

There are slight differences between the Firefox extension and the IE add-on. For example, there is a difference in the placement of the SiteAdvisor button (bottom-right on Firefox, right side of toolbar for IE). In addition, the IE version has a couple of features that the Firefox extension doesn't have, including the ability to have a Do Not Warn list.

Avoiding Errors
With any Web rating system, of course, you have to be very careful -- you don't want to mislabel a harmless site, or approve a site that later proves to be problematic. SiteAdvisor seems to be handling this possibility well -- for the most part, it deals with quantifiable data (How many e-mails from how many sources are sent when you fill in a form? How many unsafe sites does it link to?). In addition, the testing results pages include a place for comments by both users and site owners, and the browser button allows you to leave feedback about a specific site.

How effective will SiteAdvisor be in the long run? That remains to be seen. There are still a good number of sites that are yet to be rated -- which, considering the size of the Web, isn't much of a surprise. Right now, the service is free; according to SiteAdvisor's FAQ, the company plans to sell premium versions of the software on a subscription basis once it's launched.Hopefully, that won't mean that any of the current features in this Preview Version become cost-prohibitive. But meanwhile, I fully intend to use SiteAdvisor as a signpost to help me avoid the Internet's more dangerous dark alleys.

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