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Why We Hate Recommending Software Downloads To Our Readers

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Windows software downloads are a mess. Many programs try to drag adware and other malicious junk onto your computer. Even safe programs we test sometimes turn to the dark side and start bundling junk later.

More experienced geeks may not fall for this stuff as often, but we have all kinds of readers here. We prefer to avoid putting our readers into situations where they could be infected because they downloaded something we recommended.

Software Downloads Change

Here’s the worst thing we have to deal with. We regularly test software and find it’s clean and work well, so we recommend it to our readers. We did our due diligence — everything is fine.

But applications are often sold to new owners, or the current owner becomes desperate for income. These formerly trustworthy applications add adware, browser toolbars, spyware, and other junk to their installers. New readers download these tools because we recommended them, and we then start getting emails asking why we’re recommending software that infects our readers’ computers.

It’s impossible to police and regularly check all the software we link to, and we don’t want a huge archive of articles linking to sketchy software that can hurt our readers. If an application isn’t completely trustworthy and there’s a different way to do something, we’ll probably recommend that way.

This shouldn’t apply to more trustworthy software, but it sometimes does. We regularly recommend software like Firefox, Chrome, LibreOffice, CCleaner, VLC, and other popular applications. However, we’ve also recommended popular applications like Foxit Reader and µTorrent and seen them turn to the dark side. Lesser-known utilities are even more suspect.

Adware, Toolbars, and Other Junk in Installers

Installers filled with junkware are perfectly normal in the Windows software scene. This is true even for established, legitimate software. Oracle’s Java runtime attempts to install the Ask Toolbar. μTorrent is a popular BitTorrent client, but have you tried downloading it recently? You have to click through various offers that attempt to install the Conduit Search adware and a scammy PC cleaner on your computer.  This junk is marked as “Recommended by BitTorrent”, so less experienced users may think it’s actually recommended software, not that they’re being paid to recommend junk they would never use themselves.

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We’ve tried to avoid this in the past by including warnings in the article. We’d write something like “Be careful when installing this software, because it will try to install junk on your computer. Be sure to decline the offers.” But not all readers will pick up on that warning. Some readers may see the warning and accidentally agree as they click through the installation wizard — it’s meant to trick you, after all. The Ask Toolbar even attempts to hide before installing itself, so you can’t immediately uninstall it if you accidentally agree. You’ll have to wait until later — Ask is hoping you’ll forget to do that.

Yes, we Windows geeks have built up an immunity to this type of junk. Many of us don’t even notice — we just carefully click through installers and consider it normal. But many people still fall for this trap.

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Fake Download Links

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Fake download links are particularly obnoxious. You go to a program’s download page and see five different “DOWNLOAD” buttons. Which is the real download button, and which are actually advertisements that will lead you away from the real software to something that will damage your computer?

Sure, there are tricks you can use here. You can mouse over a link and see where it goes. If you download software for long enough, you’ll pick up a sort of sixth sense and realize which are fake download links and which aren’t. But these links trick people.

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We’re not thrilled about the other software downloads these sites push, either. For example, let’s go back to µTorrent again. When you download µTorrent, µTorrent “recommends” you download the VLC media player. This sounds like a great recommendation — VLC is a very good media player.

This link won’t take you to VLC’s official download page; it takes you to a third-party download site. Who knows what this other site is wrapping VLC in — you’ll probably get infected with some type of junk if you install it. If they’re paying for these advertisements, they’re making money from these downloads somehow.

To add insult to injury, µTorrent actually warns you to “Beware of online scams!” when you install it. This warning says you should only download µTorrent from its official site because you could get infected by malware if you download µTorrent from an unofficial site. Yet they’re “recommending” you download VLC from a shady third-party site!

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This is the sort of problem that makes us frustrated with the Windows desktop. Of course, the Windows desktop has many positives. We’re not recommending our readers ditch all their Windows PCs, but we are trying to be extra careful about what we recommend.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/15/14