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Browser toolbars reveal more than you think

27 August, 2007 (06:34) | Search Engines, Security | By: Nick Dalton

All the major search engines provide toolbars that you can download and install in your browser. Each toolbar has some nifty features that are commonly not found in browsers, which makes them compelling enough to download and install. One feature of all toolbars is to be ale to search the web using the search engine that made the toolbar. This is of course the reason for the toolbar’s existence: to funnel more searches to the search engine.

Another common “feature” of search engine toolbars is to report home about each web page that you visit. Even though you can in most cases turn off this feature, the toolbar offers some compelling extra benefit so that most users keep it enabled. (Or they are just unaware of the “call home” feature.)

If we for the moment disregard the privacy aspects of reporting every web page that you visit, there is another implication that most web site owners are not aware of: The web pages reported by toolbars are fed into the search engine’s web crawler. (I don’t have prof that this is the case for all toolbars, but I know it’s true in at least one case. And that’s enough to cause trouble for web masters.)

What’s the problem with that, you say? One example could be that you’re working on a new web site that is not quite ready to be public yet. And you haven’t bothered to password protect it during the development. Who is going to guess your new domain name anyway? As you’re busy developing your site, the toolbar sends the URL of every page – finished or not – to the search engine.

Another, perhaps more serious, example is the thank you page of web sites that sell digital products. When you – or anyone of your customers – goes to the thank you page, the toolbar reports the URL to the search engine. If you don’t have any additional protection on the thank you page it will be included in the search engine index. Then when a potential customer uses that search engine it’s possible that your thank you page shows up in the search results. And it’s very likely that the person searching was looking to buy your product. But now, with direct access to the thank you page the potential customer can download it for free. You just lost a sale.

If you have good web analytics it may be possible to see these direct accesses and calculate how much money you’re loosing. But it’s also very likely that the search engine has cached your page, and possibly even the product download itself. In that case you will never even know that your product was downloaded without payment.

My Digital Security Report has advice on how to protect your digital products from overzealous search engine toolbars.

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