The web is littered with traps for novice users when downloading software, from fake “Download” buttons that are actually advertisements to installers full of bundled toolbars and other junk software. Learning how to avoid the junk is an important skill.

As geeks, we know how to dodge all the junk when downloading free software for our Windows PCs. But not everyone knows how. People must be falling for these tricks or they wouldn’t still be in such wide use.

Fake Download Links

When downloading free software, the first trap you’ll encounter may be a fake download link — or multiple fake download links — on the software’s web page. You’ll often find large, brightly colored buttons with text like “Free Download” or “Download Now.” These are often just advertisement banners designed to mimic real download links, tricking you into clicking them and installing different software.

Be aware that such advertisments are trying to trick you — that’s the first step. To identify fake download links, you can generally hover your mouse cursor over the link and look at where it leads.

In the below example, the fake download link leads to a page at “” — a clear advertising link. If we moused over the real download link, we’d see that it leads to elsewhere on “”, the current website we’re on.

Additional Software Bundled on Web Pages

Even legitimate, popular software providers want to trick you into installing additional software you probably don’t want.

For example, when trying to download the Flash Player from Adobe’s official download page, you’ll find McAfee Security Scan Plus is checked by default. Users who accept the default option or don’t read it will end up with this additional software on their computers. McAfee is clearly paying Adobe for this inclusion.

To avoid this sort of thing, be careful on download pages — uncheck any additional software you don’t want to install before downloading the intended installer.

Junk Selected By Default in Installers

Software installers often bundle browser toolbars and other junk software. The developer distributes their software for free and makes some money by including this junk. Some installers may even try to change your browser’s home page and default search engine to a different home page or search engine — almost always a clearly inferior one with a worse user experience.

Don’t be fooled — the installer may say the developer “recommends” the software, but the only reason they recommend is it because they’re paid to do so. The bundled software is probably fairly bad — if it were good, you would seek it out and install it on your own.

When installing software, always be careful to uncheck any toolbars, junk software, or home page and search engine changes. It’s usually possible to disable this stuff during the installation process. Read carefully — sometimes you may have to check a box saying you don’t want to install the software or click a Decline button instead. Developers are hoping you’ll quickly click through the installation wizard and install the junk — so be careful when you install new software.

Uninstalling the Junk and Reverting Your System Settings

If you slip up and accidentally install some of this stuff, you’ll have to remove it later. While you can generally turn down the additional software by unchecking it during the software installation process, it’s often harder to remove it afterwards.

For example, the terrible Ask toolbar bundled with Oracle’s Java and other software is sneaky. After you install the software, it lies in wait for ten minutes before installing itself. If you accidentally leave it checked during the installation process and try to uninstall it right afterwards, you won’t find it there. It will only appear in your list of installed software ten minutes later.

To remove the bad software, you’ll generally just need to hunt it down in the list of installed programs in the control panel and uninstall it. A particularly bad installer might pull in multiple junk programs that you’ll have to remove. You may also have to install the toolbar or other browser extensions from within your browser. If you’re having trouble removing something, perform a Google search for it — you may need a specialized removal tool or instructions.

If an installer changed your browser’s home page and default search engine, you’ll have to change those back manually. These changes won’t be reversed, even if you uninstall the unwelcome software. Use your browser’s settings to change your home page and search engine back to your preferred choices.

If you have an infestation of particularly bad junk software, you may need to use an antivirus or antispyware program to remove it from your system.

Sadly, we probably won’t see the situation improve any time soon. Bundling unwanted software with installers has become widely accepted in the Windows software ecosystem, with companies as big as Adobe and Oracle bundling junk software along with their free downloads. Oracle even bundles the terrible Ask toolbar and other junk software along with Java security updates.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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