Do You Need a Link Scanner?

Category: Security

Are link scanners effective at detecting malware before you click? I have children in the house, and it seems they will click on almost anything. Please let me know if you think adding a link scanner to my security arsenal be a good move, and if there are any downsides.

What is a Link Scanner?

Wouldn't it be nice to know whether it's safe to click on a web link *before* you click? Link scanner technology gives you advance warning of dangerous phishing or virus attack Web sites. Link scanners (also called link checkers) are available as standalone browser extensions, features built into security suites, and even as a standard feature of some browsers. Many users welcome the added protection of link checkers, but some question their usefulness.

Two types of link scanners are available. A "reputation" scanner checks a Web site URL against a database of ratings compiled from users' input. This type of link scanner can tell you that other users think a site is a sketchy or a dangerous place to visit. The WOT (web of trust) link checker is a well-known example of this breed. Over 26 million people have downloaded the free WOT browser add-on for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Safari browsers. But not everyone is a fan of WOT and other crowd-sourced rating systems.
Link Scanners

The WOT rating system is pretty complex, attempting to gather user opinions on everything from a site's technical safety to its usability and age-appropriateness for children. All of this input is distilled into a simple "traffic light" indicator that appears next to a site's listing in search results. Green means a site is rated positively; yellow is a mixed rating; and red is a warning to stay away. Critics say that user ratings are unreliable and may have nothing to do with a site's actual safety; a bad rating could reflect a rater's disagreement with a site's content, or a competitor's attempt to make another business look bad. Also, user ratings reflect past experience and may not warn you that a site was recently hijacked.

Real-Time Link Scanners

The other type of link scanner is called a "real-time" scanner. Real-time scanners analyze the code of a Web page before the page is rendered by the browser, attempting to identify malicious code or embedded links to known attack sites. This type of real time protection is built into security suites offered by AVG, Avast!, Symantec, and other security software vendors. See my related article on Free Anti-Virus Programs.

The Achilles heel of real time link checkers is that they cannot always identify a phishing scam by scanning the HTML code of a web page. It takes human intelligence and judgment to read an online offer and decide whether it's legit.

Some link scanners combine the real time and crowd-sourced ratings. The Webutation scanner is an example of a browser addon, which works with Internet Explorer and Firefox. Webutation uses user feedback about websites, and realtime tests to detect spyware and scams. They also factor in stats from Google Safebrowsing, WOT and other resources. Interestingly, when you check out the WOT website using Webutation, it shows five reviews, of which only one is positive, and three rate WOT as "useless". My only hesitation against recommending Webutation is the spelling errors and odd verbiage on their About page. ("Please leave a review right here to help other internet user to tap in the same trap." Huh?)

Some users employ multiple link scanners in order to get both types of protection. Others feel that link scanners are unnecessary and slow down their browsing experiences. They tend to rely on the protection features built into their Web browsers, such as the SmartScreen filter in Internet Explorer 9 or Google's SafeSearch technology found in Firefox and other browsers.

Link scanners are one more tool you can use to avoid being scammed or infected by malicious Web sites. However, their protection does have a performance cost and is not entirely foolproof. Personally, I prefer to use only the built-in link checker in my web browser, and I turn off the AVG link scanner for performance reasons. But if you have less experienced users at home, or you're prone to wandering off into the dark corners of the web, a link checker may be a good idea.

Do you have something to say about link scanners? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Do You Need a Link Scanner?"

Posted by:

28 Oct 2011

The only times WOT has flagged a site for me is when it has been sabotaged by those who disagree with someone or something a web site is featuring or an advertisement with which they disagree or a program they don't like. I appreciate what WOT is trying to accomplish but it's too easy to circumvent their good intentions.

Posted by:

Jean Hubert
28 Oct 2011

If you see something like: "If you want to see a sexy picture of Bob Rankin click here" but the real meaning is "If you want a virus on your computer click here", what can you do, except trust your antivirus software? I don't think a software can solve this before the click. You can check the source of every page but that's boring.

Posted by:

Bob Gostischa
28 Oct 2011

"Do You Need a Link Scanner?"
Just for your information, avast! Free does that for you without having to spend any money.

Posted by:

Tom Thomas
28 Oct 2011

I use McAfee SiteAdvisor instead of WOT to scan my search engine results so I don't click over to a malicious webpage from search engines.

I got burned very badly with malware after clicking on a search result in Google that seemed safe at the time (no p**n or other risky search resquest was made).

So now I make sure to use McAfee Siteadvosr. WOT is much like it, but I wasn't crazy about users judging the safety of site links.

McAfee has it's own algorithm for checking urls instead of user input.

Posted by:

Digital Artist
28 Oct 2011

I recently lost a computer by clicking on a link. "Upgrade for uTorrent is available. Click here to download." Being constantly warned that security depends partly on keeping software up to date, I clicked. Not only was my computer completely disabled but the hijackers were telling me that they would clean out the virus for eighty bucks. I recognized that as a phishing ploy to get my credit card information and possibly more. I was running AVG free edition at the time. I am my own link scanner now.

Posted by:

29 Oct 2011

The HOSTS file is performing the same function except it does not scan but bloks the link to known malware sites.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sort of, but this method is a bit tedious, and prone to being out of date. Also, these HOSTS files that some people make available are somewhat arbitrary. They often try to block not just malware, but ad networks as well. Not good for the Internet ecosystem, in my opinion.

Posted by:

D V N Sarma
29 Oct 2011

Does not some brousers like Google Chrome do such a scanning before they render the web page?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, I mentioned this in the article.

Posted by:

29 Oct 2011

As usual,Besides Good Judgement and Browsing Experience....You need a Combination Of Tools,to minimize the Chances of being infected,especially,SEO and Drive-By,Downloads!
Personally,the Combination of AVG Link Scanner,Norton Internet Security's Built-In Scanner and the Browsers's Built -In,Safebrowsing Tools,Gimme a real good Sense of Browsing Safety!
Of Course,Firefox 7.01,Disables the AVG Plug in,among other Plug Ins,as not Compatible with the Current Version Of Mozilla.....something,that will be Fixed,in the Next Version of AVG Link Scanner 2012.
At the same Time,I'm not Using Firefox,for Deep Internet Browsing.I Prefer Google Chrome or Internet Explorer 9.
Hope that Helps!!

Posted by:

30 Oct 2011

I'm a little confused by Google's SafeSearch technology, particularly as used in Firefox 7.0.1. I cannot find any setting in Firefox related to this particular feature. It also appears that SafeSearch is, as it is utilized in Google's search interface, only applicable to the filtering of adult content. How can Firefox help me practice safe surfing, especially in terms of enabling and configuring it?

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Do You Need a Link Scanner? (Posted: 28 Oct 2011)
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