In the not-too-distant past, search toolbars were risky specialty add-ons offered by Internet marketing mavens. Users who installed search toolbars often were granting permission without knowing it to intruders harvesting data on addresses and surfing habits and opening the backdoor to their computers.
Spyware typically went hand-in-hand with toolbars. The add-on was free. However, more times than not, the real price of downloading and installing the toolbar was costly. It would result in targeted ads often bombarding computer screens. Annoying messages, lost productivity, and serious threat of hacker intrusion added to the real price of the free search toolbar.
A typical ploy was to offer a search toolbar that provided the downloader with a pop-up ad blocker and other free features. However, depending on the toolbar, the consumer often was victimized by the toolbar sponsor’s own flavor of pop-up ads delivered directly to the computer screen. Often, the pop-up windows would appear from files buried on the user’s hard drive even when the computer was not surfing the Internet.
That is not the case today. At least not with search toolbars provided by well-known Web portal operators like MSN, Google, Yahoo and others, according to some industry insiders.
Viewing Ugly Side
Today, search toolbars have become standard fare on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and most alternative browsers. The toolbar providers have found a way to provide legitimate searching tools for free, while offering sponsors a less disreputable business model for making money in the search-results marketplace.
Despite this new good guy attitude reflected in a growing number of “safe” toolbar add-ons, horror stories still abound. Some computer users wind up with overloaded systems because they either voluntarily or involuntarily downloaded the wrong search toolbars. Kerwin Roslie, owner of AAA TK Computers in Fernandina Beach, Florida, warns against all third-party toolbars, citing not only the adware and spyware probabilities, but also the valuable space they take up.
“Most are auto-initiated installs customers don’t know how they got or [which] came packaged with other software they wanted and didn’t know how to prevent its installation,” Roslie said. “I have seen as many as six installed on one computer, which left the browsing window all but unusable.”
Roslie told the E-Commerce Times that 80 percent of his service business involves removing spyware and adware installed as part of search toolbar downloads.
“I personally have not seen a toolbar I would consider worth using,” he said. “There are toolbars out there that I suggest customers keep if they actually use them, such as Yahoo, Google, AOL and other well known and respected companies. But I personally would not use them.”
Roslie’s objection leans towards wasted computer resources more than his concern about spyware. He said the more software that is added to the computer, the slower it runs and the more compatibility issues they are likely to cause.
“In the case of ‘unreputable’ toolbars, the more enticing the features sound, the more spying/advertising it’s likely to do. If it sounds too good to be free, it is,” he said.
Toolbars Get Bad Rap
Viewpoint Corp. CEO Jay S. Amato is trying to change the tarnished image of the search toolbar industry. He agrees that some bad products are installed and are difficult to remove. But such products are now the exceptions and not the rule, he said.
“Most toolbar providers are not space mongers,” Amato said. He has an insider’s view that reputable providers are not packing consumers’ computers with bad things.
Amato said his company looks at every toolbar available in assessing what kinds of services to offer its clients. The results do not support accusations that toolbars today are bad for consumers.
“We put sniffer scripts on search engines to see who is doing what,” he told The E-Commerce Times. “We haven’t found any major violations.”
Amato said lingering concerns over search toolbar security is the product of media attention.
“When we started developing our search toolbar product last year, the focus in the Internet community was on spam. Now the focus is on spyware and adware,” he said.
Add-On Versus Built-In
For patrons of alterative browsers, the issue of safety in using search toolbars is a moot point. The leading non-Internet Explorer products such as Mozilla FireFox, Netscape and Secure IE provide multiple search engine toolbars. Users do not have to worry about hidden devices associated with these built-in toolbars.
According to Winferno President John Lal, maker of Secure IE, search toolbars are provided by a good mix of vendors whose products offer both functionality and hidden tracking services.
Even if nothing sneaky is lurking within a search toolbar product, Lal warns of inherent dangers caused by browser vulnerabilities.
“Toolbars usually install with ActiveX. Most users don’t understand what they are getting with ActiveX turned on,” Lal told The E-Commerce Times. “Even legitimate toolbar dispensers are at risk because they open up vulnerabilities because they reside in the browser.”
Turning on ActiveX allows special features to work. Video and audio displays will present information that the Web site visitor otherwise would not see and hear, for instance. ActiveX displays also provide a more pleasing graphic view and permits specially written programs to execute from a Web site.
However, allowing ActiveX to run programs exposes the computer to dangerous code as well. ActiveX programs can open a door for intrusion by spyware and adware modules. Because of the increased risk of exposure to vulnerabilities, many Internet security experts advise users to turn off the AcitveX controls. Users can change their browser’s security settings to enable, disable or prompt for ActiveX in the Tools/Internet Options/Security panel of the browser or from the Control Panel settings in the Windows Operating System.
According to Lal, the average computer user is better off staying away from search toolbars. Instead, he recommends using products like Secure IE that packages toolbars within the browser. This product replaced what Lal described as the “broken” parts of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and gives the user a new and improved interface.
Menu of Values
According to Viewpoint’s Amato, all of the major search toolbars add value to the consumers’ Web-surfing experiences. That is why so many people use them, he said.
Before the advent of reputable search toolbars, about 78 percent of all Internet searches were performed on specific search landing sites. Amato said he is not aware of any industrywide figures for the location of Internet searches today. However, he said it is known that millions of consumers have downloaded search toolbars provided by the major Web site vendors.
“Microsoft has seen millions of downloads of its MSN toolbar. We’ve seen four million downloads of our Viewpoint toolbar.
Amato said that a strong marketing point of most search toolbars has been the pop-up ad blocker feature.
Generally, search toolbars offer a similar catalog of features. Consumers often use more than one popular toolbar to double up on the available features.
The practice of running multiple search toolbars in the browser is a bad idea, Amato noted. Consumers don’t usually turn off the pop-up ad blocker. With more than one ad blocker running, strange things often happen, he warned.
Another hidden problem with using multiple toolbars is the drain they cause on system resources. Each toolbar consumes some memory. The browser itself usually takes 20 MB of RAM, Amato said. Each installed toolbar uses up another 5 MB to 10 MB of RAM.
Add to that graphics displays in products like Viewpoint’s and skins to modify the toolbar’s appearance, and the memory overhead becomes even greater, Amato said.
“Google and Yahoo search toolbars use less memory because they are text-only,” he said.