Why search engines are as bad as download sites when it comes to freeware

Martin Brinkmann
Jan 31, 2015
Updated • Jan 31, 2015

There are many free programs out there on the Internet that are great: Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC Media Player, CCleaner, Revo Uninstaller, QuietRSS, WinSCP or KeePass are just some examples of programs that you can download and use for free.

While it should be pretty straightforward to download these programs, it is often not the case. Sure, if you know the url they are offered on then you go there and download them, but if you don't, you have to use search engines or visit a download site to get them.

Many download sites use download wrappers these days that contain adware offers. This is done to increase revenue even though it is communicated as being something that is done for the user as it secures the download.

There are ways to bypass those wrappers on most download sites but the links that lead to direct downloads are often smaller or in the background while the main download link advertising the wrapper is in your face on the page.

In addition to all that, they do display ads on their pages that may deceive users as well. If you see two, three or four download links on a page, which is the right one?

The How To Geek addressed the issue and while I think that it went a bit overboard with the claim, it is without doubt a big issue for users on the Internet.

Search engines are not any better however and there are actually two reasons for this.

  1. Depending on their ranking of sites for the keyword you have entered, the main project website of the software may not be listed first or highlighted at all.
  2. Ads displayed on top or the side of the results may deceive users.

1. Problematic rankings

search freeware issues

This is less of an issue for popular programs. If you search for Firefox or VLC, company websites are usually placed in the first spot in the organic rankings.

If you search for lesser known programs, say Silentnight Micro Burner however, you will often notice that other sites are listed before the author's site.

A quick search on Google for the term lists several download portals, Softonic, Afterdawn or Chip before the author's own website. In fact, it is placed in position 16 currently on Google which means that you won't find it at all on the first page of results.

Google is not the only search provider that is delivering weak results when it comes to software that is not overly popular.

On Bing, it is listed in position five of the results while Softonic, Portable Freeware, Image results and Softonic again make the first four spots.

DuckDuckGo lists the program in the first spot, Startpage just like Google in position 16, and Yahoo Search in position one as well.

If you search for different program names, you may get different results but the core issue remains:

Search engines don't rank the official homepage of a software project in the number one spot all the time.

2. Advertisement

Advertisement are display to earn revenue and I'm the last one on earth to call out companies for displaying ads on their sites.

The problem is not that advertisement is displayed but the nature of some of the ads. They can deceive users into downloading other software or paying for downloads that should be free.

If you search for Firefox on Google, you may get download ads displayed on top of the organic search results.

ads in search

If you heard about Firefox and want to download it but don't know anything about the company that produces it, then you may click on the first result in search.

Google Search is not the only search that is affected by this. If you search for VLC on Yahoo for example, you get two ads on top as well before the real homepage is displayed.

yahoo search

The same is true for results on Bing, Startpage or DuckDuckGo. All may display ads on top of the organic results that may confuse or even deceive users.

What happens if you download a program from these sites? It varies depending on where you download it from.

I downloaded VLC from one of these sites and instead of getting the media player, I was bombarded with adware offers in the installer.

Even worse, it tried to install a program on the system even though I declined all offers in the installer. What I did not get in the end was VLC.

Your results may vary depending on where you live and what you search for but it is without question that ads can be very problematic in search engines.

Make sure you can distinguish between organic results and advertisement on search result pages.

Closing Words

You are probably wondering what you can do about it. There is not much that you can do unfortunately.

You can use the few remaining software portals that don't use download wrappers, Major Geeks for example, to avoid these.

As far as search is concerned, the best way to avoid ads is to make sure you can distinguish between advertisement and organic results. Ad-blockers may help you as well as they can block ads from showing up in first place on these sites.

Now You: Have tips or a story you want to share about this? I would love to hear them.

Why search engines are as bad as download sites when it comes to software downloads
Article Name
Why search engines are as bad as download sites when it comes to software downloads
Find out why search engines are not the best choice when it comes to downloading software as they may trick you in downloading and installing adware.

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  1. All Things Firefox said on February 6, 2015 at 12:48 am

    Search engines aren’t quite as bad, but they can be misleading. I think DuckDuckGo is the best at this, since it has the official site seal and also displays only one ad, as opposed to Google which usually has multiple.

  2. Bob said on February 3, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    DuckDuckGo does indicate the official link in the search page when looking up stuff (i.e. Microsoft, NBC, Walmart, and so on). Why didn’t this article mention this?

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on February 3, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      Because it does not do that all of the time. It is a welcome feature though.

  3. CharlieOS said on February 2, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    So, instead of just complaining about it, what can we actually do to improve things? Sounds to me as though the Internet needs an entirely new classification for truly “clean” freeware. Maybe a term such as “pureware” can be introduced into Web vernacular to denote only that software that is truly free — costing nothing and strictly not encumbered or bundled with ads, cost, trial offers, wrappers, time-outs, crippled feature sets, etc. Any so-called freeware site that then includes non-pureware as true freeware could then be blacklisted by various sources (add-ins, browser extensions, etc.). That may not be a perfect solution — but it may make things at least a little better.

    1. PJ said on February 2, 2015 at 8:57 pm

      The marketing concept of “pureware” is unlikely to deter the growth of crapware & crapware-bundled installers. For instance, the presence of clean nutritious food affixed with “Healthy” stickers is no threat at all to junk food.

      I think the only way to totally eradicate the all-too-common practice of bundling crapware with freeware is for the majority of users to boycott ALL of the following. No exceptions allowed, because any small loophole will allow the continual flourishing of crapware.

      1) Unscrupulous 3rd-party software portals (eg. CNET, Softonic, etc.) that wrap in-house crapware to both clean & unclean installers;

      2) Freeware that come bundled with crapware by its own developer. Eg. Unlocker, Avira Antivirus, Panda Antivirus, Comodo Firewall, EaseUS Partition Master, Format Factory, ImgBurn, IrfanView, etc. etc.;

      3) Software-package managers (eg. Ninite) & apps (eg. Unchecky) that help users to “click No/ Decline” in the background. Although these helpers seem benign enough, they are nevertheless fuelling demand for crapware-infested software, as well as implicitly condoning the nefarious actions of crapware-bundling developers. In other words, Ninite & Unchecky are quietly functioning as conduits & channels.

      Likewise, we also need ethical developers (who already refrain from bundling crapware) to boycott 3rd-party software portals that practise crapware bundling, whether this directly affects their own software products or not. As a matter of principle, these developers should not permit their software to be featured at unethical software portals.

      So what is the likelihood of the above happening ? Can the IT community (including normal users like us) take a concerted stand & say NO to all undesirable practices ?

      1. PJ said on February 2, 2015 at 10:12 pm

        Would the major search engines agree to downgrade crapware-serving websites & software in terms of search ranking, considering that these search giants have developed crapware of their own ?

        Think: Google Toolbar, Yahoo Toolbar, Bing Bar (… which is also served by Windows Update !)

        Likewise, when security software products like Avira & Comodo have long been bundling crapware in their own installers, can we depend on them to keep out crapware ?

        It is like prostitution. Eg. Avira Free Antivirus = prostitute, whose pimps include: Avira Operations GmbH & Co. KG, CNET Download.com, Ninite, Unchecky, etc. etc.

        The insidious part is that bundled crapware is “kind of ok” as long as Ninite & Unchecky help to sugarcoat the whole business.

      2. Martin Brinkmann said on February 2, 2015 at 9:19 pm

        Even if everyone who knows about these wrappers and offers boycotts them, it is likely not enough to count for much. If search engines or security software products on the other hand would decide to penalize download portals for the behavior, that’s another story.

  4. PJ said on February 1, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Google’s index-ranking algorithm (determined by bot-crawlers with minimal human moderation) is the “problem”. Analogy: The gorilla distributing leaflets & shouting “Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi !” every 5 seconds would rank highest in Google Search for “gandhi”.

    Below shows how various search engines (with default settings) rank Silentnight Micro Burner developer’s website (silentnight2004.com) … Bad Performers: Those powered/ enhanced by Google; Worst Performer: Google (even worse than Ask.com).

    1) Ixquick
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 1 & 2
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 1 & 3; 2nd result = Portablefreeware.com

    2) DuckDuckGo
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 1
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 1

    3) Disconnect.me (“founded in 2011 by former Google engineers”; I chose the Blekko Search option)
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 1
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 2 & 3; 1st result = Free-Codecs.com

    4) Yahoo Search
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 3 & 4; 1st result = Softonic.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 1 & 2

    5) Privatelee
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 4 & 4a (sub-result); 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 2 & 2a (sub-result); 1st result = Softonic.com

    6) Blekko
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 3 & 5; 1st result = Softonic.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 4 & 6; 1st result = Free-Codecs.com

    7) Unbubble.eu
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 4 & 5; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 1 — rank 3 & 4; 1st result = Softonic.com

    8) F-Secure Search (“powered by Google”)
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 8; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 2 — rank 13; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com

    9) StartPage (“enhanced by Google”)
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 8; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 2 — rank 16; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com

    10) Disconnect.me (“founded in 2011 by former Google engineers”; using the 1st-listed Google option)
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 9; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 2 — rank 17 & 19; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com

    11) Ask.com
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 1 — rank 4; 1st result = instalki.pl
    • silentnight micro burner : not listed within top 100 results, but pg 1’s 5th result (portableapps.com)’s inline description shows the developer’s website; 1st result = Tucows.com

    12) Google Search
    • “silentnight micro burner” : pg 2 — rank 11 & 12; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com
    • silentnight micro burner : pg 2 — rank 16 & 17; 1st result = Portablefreeware.com

  5. Anon said on February 1, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    It’s a complete scam and the search engines are complicit in it because it’s major source of their profits.

  6. pillbug said on February 1, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    I’m saddened to see you group Portable Freeware in with the rest of the skank sites.

    TPFC is only (and has only) been run by 1 guy and he has never ever (and never ever will) sell out with wrapper crap.

    Yes, he has small ads that he uses to keep the site running. But his site is a far cry from the boated pieces of shite you seem to want to group it in with.

    TPFC is more of a fan site than a download site, and you do it a grave dis-service in your article.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on February 1, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      I don’t even mention that site in the article. If you refer to the screenshot, it is still not okay that it ranks before the author’s site. That’s all there is to that screenshot.

  7. Nebulus said on February 1, 2015 at 11:52 am

    This search engine problem is easily solved using AdBlock Plus with Element Hiding Helper (for Firefox) and with a few simple filters.

  8. Mystique said on February 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

    on another not Unbubble.eu seems to be a nice new search engine , sure the results are similar but from my basic searches it seems that the software’s actual website appears first rather than the well known scam websites filling the top few spots first.
    Unbubble also claims to be highly secure and confidential amongst other things.

    See the following 8 claims made by them.

    Aside from google hit hider (which also works with duckduckgo) I would also recommend, Unchecky and AntiAdware, there is another downloader tool but I cannot remember it for the life of me right now :(
    If I remember correctly the downloader would seek out often hidden or obscured links from the developers website and give you the crapware free installer.

    In regards the HTG I do believe the author is a tad aggressive but he has made some valid points. I still believe that softpedia is a good source for files (although I hate the new desigh, it seems a bit too busy).
    If I remember the link to the downloader I was referring to and it is still functioning I will post it here. :-)

  9. CoolCatBad said on February 1, 2015 at 2:42 am

    Izarc, the archive manager, comes straight from the developers site bundled with crapware that installs no matter what you tick.

    I have been using Izarc for years, always getting it from the Izarc website.

    About a month ago I was shocked to find the program is now bundled with malicious junk.

  10. darksurfer said on January 31, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    I suppose Snapfiles doesn’t use wrappers and ad stuff and they leave a warning about third party items that are bundled with the freeware.

    One must be very careful about what they use. Remember: there is no free lunch.

  11. Ken Saunders said on January 31, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    I was going to mention something about what Guest said before I read the comment.
    Even with Adblock Plus, the results nowadays suck.
    That goes for most non-popular and obvious search queries.
    I usually find the best results for whatever I may be looking for deeper or further down into search results.

    There’s obviously a high demand for a decent, clean software site.
    I’m surprised no one is jumping on it.

    Martin, you still have any support that I can offer if you want to get one going and I’m sure that goes for your other readers.

  12. jasray said on January 31, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Sounds like people are still using Windows and looking for “free.” Makes little sense because everyone already knows that isn’t going to happen.

    I didn’t know Google and Yahoo were still valid search engines. Ghacks tells readers to never use either one; what changed?

  13. Guest said on January 31, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    You could solve 90% of the problems above by installing Adblock and WoT (Web of Trust)

  14. Brian said on January 31, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Hi everyone,
    and you Martin do not forget Ad Muncher excellent program and now its free.

  15. Straspey said on January 31, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Unfortunately, Martin, we’re now at the point where even sites mentioned in your linked article – such as Softpedia, File Hippo, Freeware Files and Major Geeks – are no longer 100% and are offering Freeware for download which comes heavily bundled with adware, browser hijackers, toolbars, search-engine hijackers, and all sorts of unwanted and annoying elements.

    Over at How-To-Geek, Lowell Heddings has recently written an excellent article detailing exactly places like Softpeidia and CNET try to fool you into downloading their heavily bundled Freeware programs – and what to look for:

    Yes, Every Freeware Download Site is Serving Crapware (Here’s the Proof)


    1. PJ said on January 31, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      The HowToGeek article is misleading & unfair at some points. For Softpedia & MajorGeeks, if the 3rd-party installers they offer come bundled with crapware, it is only because these installers had been wrapped as such by the original developers themselves. Softpedia & MajorGeeks do not bundle extra crapware into 3rd-party freeware installers.

      For instance, with reference to HowToGeek article’s examples of the Unlocker 1.9.2 installer (developer: Cedrick Collomb/ EmptyLoop, offered at Softpedia etc.) & the 3D Aquarium Screensaver (developer: 3D Savers, offered at MajorGeeks etc.) … even if you were to use the installers downloaded from the developers’ websites, you also get offered the same bundleware as intended by the developers.

      For such cases (& there are many indeed), there is no point in visiting the freeware developer’s/ official download site, unless the developer concerned also offers crapware-free installers or portable versions.

    2. theMike said on January 31, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      I also agree with Lowell about giving up on freeware/shareware and just purchasing the software outright. I’m not against open source but the way developers bundle their software with junk i feel safer spending a few dollars on the software I use the most.

  16. Matt said on January 31, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    I always find http://www.ninite.com handy. Wish they had more installers.

    1. clas said on January 31, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      yes, i agree with ninite….too few for sure but each is nice and clean

  17. CHEF-KOCH said on January 31, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Well, another unmentioned problem is (sigh) google. Another good example for there politics is “eat or die”, recently TotalCommander (known Explorer replacement with additional benefits) got an re-upload because of the damn Google Chrome Browser. There own “downloader” blocked such download, so TC couldn’t be downloaded within chrome.

    Here is the original “changelog” from TC:
    As you may have noticed, Google Chrome refuses to download TC 8.51a for being “unknown malware”. Since there is no way to contact Google about the problem, I have created a new installer which combines the currently two parts (self extractor to TEMP, then install.exe) into a single installer.
    The new installer doesn’t unpack any files to temp, it extracts them directly to the target chosen by the user.

    So the developer can ignore this and loose some downloads (users) or he can “fix” it and make what google want from him, this is horrible in my eyes. It’s shows again, if you not make what google want from you that you very soon gets out of the market. So I highly recommend to boycott such business and of course such products.
    Same can be said for search engine like the google one, if you not make what they want you rank will be very bad or not displayed and I still wondering why all prefer such things. You should notice that they gonna make money with your data and of course ads.

  18. Dwight Stegall said on January 31, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Get Unchecky to keep checkboxes unchecked in those wrappers. I avoid MagorGeeks. At least half of their links are dead.

  19. Mystique said on January 31, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Although I haven’t read the entire article at depth it does somewhat remind me why I installed a script known as ‘Google Hit Hider’ (also works with duckduckgo also) which allows you to block specific websites from appearing upon search as is the case the top hits are usually trash websites with install wrappers or various other scams.

    It can be found here at the developers website.

  20. Horo said on January 31, 2015 at 10:57 am
  21. Horo said on January 31, 2015 at 10:49 am
  22. Craig said on January 31, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Just pt MG at the and the first link to show up will be MajorGeeks.

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