Many download sites, and it does not really matter if they are download portals like Softpedia or Download.com, or file hosting services like Turbobit or Mediafire, use ads to generate revenue. That's a perfectly fine business model and all, and I do not think a lot of Internet users would criticize them for that.
I recently paid a visit to Download.com and noticed that the site went a bit overboard with the amount of deceptive advertisements on its download pages. I counted a total of five download links on the page above the fold, of which four were ads for other products unrelated to the one that I tried to download.
The top two Start Download banners are obviously ads, and unrelated to the product that I tried to download. The textual ads underneath the right banner also contain the term download, and may deceive some users as well.
Experienced users usually know what link they have to click on and which better to avoid. I decided to take a look around how other sites' download pages are designed. Before I start I'd like to mention that ads may and probably will change if parameters change. This can be the user's IP, language or other factors, the time of day, the budget of the company or limits that have been set. Keep in mind that I'm not criticizing the use of ads as a revenue source.
Softpedia did not display that many ads on the page. I received an offer to try a 30-day trial version of Windows Intune, and an offer to download an unrelated program on the same page the download button was displayed. Especially the ad right underneath the title could be seen as relevant to the requested download.
On Major Geeks things changed to offers to scan my PC before downloading the file. They may look like recommendations from the site operators. A text link is displayed in the content area as well that is leading to an offer to scan the PC for driver updates.
Downloadcrew once again displayed a Download Now banner in a premium location on the screen.
FileHippo actually looked like one of the cleanest sites to me. While it displayed a Google Adsense banner on the left, and a banner on the lower right, they could not really be mistaken as download links.
File Hosting Sites
Now that I have looked at some popular download portals, it is time to take a look at how file hosting services handle these things.
FilesTube is using two different kinds of advertisements. First the banners that only consist of two large buttons to play now or download. But you also have ads at the top of the results, just like Google does in their search engine. All three links there lead to a commercial offer that suggests that you can download the desired file right there (which is unlikely if you look at the search term).
Mediafire displays many ads on its download page. At the top a download ad, and then around the actual download option additional ads, which at the time of testing, did not display download buttons or options.
4Shared displayed ads around the requested file, and a second download button for the company's own 4Shared Desktop application.
Turbobit finally went overboard with the ads by displaying a total of five download buttons on the screen, plus additional ads.
Finding the right download button
On most download portals, you should not really have that much troubles finding the right download button. One of the easiest ways to locate it is to know all standard ad formats to ignore those automatically. Formats like 728x120, 468x60, 300x250, 160:600 or 336x280 are commonly used to display ads, and it is unlikely that the "real" download button uses those formats.
Another option that you have is to right-click a button or ad which often helps you identify whether it is an add or not. If you see About Adobe Flash in the context menu, you can be almost certain that it is an ad and not the real deal.
You can also hover over the element to take a look at the link. If it points to a third party site, or looks like the one you see on the screenshot below, you can also be certain that it is indeed an ad and not the real download link.
While not always possible, you can also try and find a download site that is lighter on ads, or at least does not use deceptive ads.
For file hosting sites, you could alternatively use a program like JDownloader to avoid the ads and confusion completely.
As far as download portals are concerned, it is often better to download the files directly from the developer website and not the portal. While this works well most of the time, you sometimes can't download from the developer site, for instance if they have decided to cooperate with a download portal.
What's your take on the situation?
I'd like to thank Raymond for his article on the subject, as I used it for inspiration.