There are resources available that will give indications about a link’s safety, but not all link safety guides are based on the same criteria, and if any one of them is treated without knowing how it works, what criteria it uses, and what its ratings mean, you are likely to misinterpret the results.  IOW, when it comes to checking link safety, one size DOES NOT fit all, and the user (and for that matter, the site owner) is best served by understanding the software COMPLETELY.Link Safety Checkers

In the interest of readability, this discussion is going to be as brief as possible; consequently this is NOT intended to be a FULL treatment of ALL safe link indicators.

I’ve dealt with only two heavily misunderstood areas here:  the difference between the common concepts of “safety” and “trust, and the nature of “comments”.  I’ve left a lot out, like:  the determination of rating reliability and rating confidence levels, the advantages and disadvantages of human raters versus crawlers, what constitutes good due diligence, how Democracy and Meritocracy pertain to rating systems, trusted sources, and much more.  If you want to learn how a particular safe link indicator works and you SHOULD do that before you use one, go to the link safety software site and learn from there.  THIS IS NOT A MANUAL.

To illustrate the point I made in the first paragraph above, I’ll use three VERY DIFFERENT link safety indicators as an example . . . Web of Trust (“WOT”) and McAFee SiteAdvisor (“SA”), and the FF add on LinkExtend (which gives you an indication from not only SA and WOT, but Norton Safe Web and a few others).

SA is currently pretty much the industry standard (though WOT is giving it a run for it’s money).  Consequently, the assumption is that ALL link safety checkers emulate SA.  And that’s where the trouble begins.  If you make this assumption, you’re on a slippery slope, and will likely have the INCORRECT view, where the ratings differ, that either one or the other is flat out wrong.

Let me mention right here that WOT, SA, NSW, and brethren CAN be incorrect.  They have False Positives just like antivirus programs do.  And since I’m mentioning antivirus programs, let me also point out that safe link checkers, be it WOT or SA or any of the others, DO NOT and were not designed to function as antivirus programs.  While they may or may not detect malicious code, they certainly can’t “quarantine” or otherwise disinfect a machine, and definitely should not be used as substitutes for antivirus programs (or firewalls or intrusion protection mechanisms either.)

They are ADVISORY only, and should be used as guides, a sort of heads up to do your own due diligence if you want to visit or download from a poorly rated site.  They should never be taken as “gospel”.

OK . . . back to the comparison of SA and WOT, and I’ll use LinkExtend as the mode of comparison.

Coupla’ examples here.

First is an MLM (“Multi-level marketing”, AKA “pyramid scheme”) site. Most of those sites do not harbor malware, simply because they don’t want to be down rated by those other services for the presence of malware . . . thereby securing visitors and “candidates” that take SA and brethren as “gospel”.

Go to this site:  http://www.herbalife.com/

Using LinkExtend, you will see that SA rates the site green because it’s criteria is “safety”, i.e. the presence or absence of malware.

WOT, OTOH rates the site poorly because the WOT raters view it as a pyramid scheme scam and not trustworthy.  (Discussions of the virtues or lack thereof of Herbalife are not pertinent here . . . I’m just using it as an example.)

So there you have what would seem like a contradiction to someone who does not know how Web of Trust (WOT) works.

Is SA right? YES, when considered that the SA criteria is “safety”.

Does that make WOT wrong? NO, because the WOT criteria is . . . TRUSTWORTHINESS, which encompasses not only safety but is also an evaluation on whether or not the CONTENT can be trusted.

The problem lies with the use of the word “safety”.  SA would more closely be labeled a “safe link checker”, while WOT would be more accurately thought of as a “trust link checker”.  “Trust” includes safety but is much more comprehensive.

So SA shows green and WOT would show red on most MLM sites. A contradiction? No. Both, according to the criteria they use, are correct.

Now secondly, let’s take some Canadian pharmaceutical sites. A lot of them (most, if not all) are illegal for use in the US because they “import” controlled substances without FDA approval (arguments about “Big Pharma” notwithstanding). Their prices are generally cheaper than what you would get here in the US consequently they appeal to a lot of seniors on fixed incomes, but there is also a health issue.

The reason the FDA hasn’t approved of most of them is because the FDA cannot verify where the drugs originated, nor do the drugs fall under the scrutiny of US inspection for quality and ingredient concentration. You could be getting a placebo, or worse something like arsenic, for all you know, and it could be from unlicensed places in who-knows-where.

And one of the more health-threatening aspects is that some of these pharmacies advertise and peddle their drugs WITHOUT a Doctor’s having examined the patient. IOW, they will sell you Viagra, regardless of whether you are on nitrates or have high blood pressure . . . their “in-house doctor” will write you a prescription without having examined you or taken your history.

Suffice it to say, there are a number of reasons not to trust these people.

However, most of these scam pharmacy sites do not, like MLM sites, host malware.

Go to:  http://www.pharmacy-online.ca/

On LinkExtend, SA shows them as green, and it would be RIGHT in the context of it’s criteria.

But WOT shows them as red, in which case it would ALSO be right in the context of it’s criteria . . . TRUSTWORTHINESS.  All that says is that WOT raters don’t trust the site.  You may agree or disagree, and go to the site as you please.

Again, whether or not YOU view pharmacy-online.ca as trustworthy is not pertinent here . . . WOT does not keep you from going to the site, and you may visit it as you please.  Just another example for this specific discussion.

Now let’s move on to the notion of WOT ratings being “inaccurate”, “incorrect”, or “misleading”. Some more flawed reasoning.

I think the moon is beautiful. Others think it is ugly.

Am I right, and others are wrong? Of course not. Are others right and I am wrong? Of course not.

Why? Because these are opinions and by definition opinions are neither right nor wrong.

Screwy, obnoxious, crazy, or weird perhaps, and you may disagree with it, but there’s not really a “right” or “wrong”, an “inaccurate”, “incorrect”, or “misleading” to it. WOT ratings ARE opinions.

And finally, another area where WOT takes an unfair bashing is “comments” on the scorecard.  Novices to WOT AND irate site owners (you’re always going to have them since link checkers that rate a site poorly essentially are calling a site owner’s baby ugly), that don’t know how it works often mistake comments as ratings.

As an example here:

On WOT, Facebook is rated solidly green (http://www.mywot.com/en/scorecard/facebook.com ). But the number of red comments is overwhelming. Nevertheless, the majority of WEIGHTED raters trust FB . . . and it’s green, period.

Do I trust FB? NO! Did I rate it green? No!

IMO, social networking sites are havens for novices, thus are a target rich environment for malware writers. Novices are not noted for being security conscious.

All they want to do is take their new machine out of the box, plug it in, and go to FB because their friends said it was kewl. They could care less about security. Hence, malware writers have a warm nest.

(I should mention here that a lot of experienced users visit social networking sites.  Frank J here is one.  But these users are extremely familiar with security measures and take the proper precautions when visiting.  So if you’re going to visit a social networking site, it would be a good idea to have your security measures “tight”, as Frank and other experienced users do.)

AFAIC, FB is red to me. I don’t trust it at all, and I especially have privacy concerns. Are those that rated FB green “wrong”? I can’t say that, crazy and screwy perhaps, but wrong? They apparently see the moon differently than I do, and that’s about as far as I can go evaluating an OPINION.

So do I disagree with some WOT ratings? Of course I do, but not too many.

Conclusion:  At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the user to maintain safe surfing.

A lot of users will say:  “I got infected (or scammed) because [WOT, SA, NSW . . . whatever] said the site was safe and it wasn’t”.  It’s human nature to blame anything or anybody other than yourself for problems.

DO YOUR OWN DUE DILIGENCE.  These link checkers are just a heads up that you need to look further if you really want to visit the site or download from it.  As in anything, it’s always best to check with more than one . . . what one misses, the other may catch.  It’s YOUR CALL!

(BTW, TechJaws is rated excellent on all checkers.)