The software awards scam

software awardI put out a new product a couple of weeks ago. This new product has so far won 16 different awards and recommendations from software download sites. Some of them even emailed me messages of encouragement such as “Great job, we’re really impressed!”. I should be delighted at this recognition of the quality of my software, except that the ‘software’ doesn’t even run. This is hardly surprising when you consider that it is just a text file with the words “this program does nothing at all” repeated a few times and then renamed as an .exe. The PAD file that described the software contains the description “This program does nothing at all”. The screenshot I submitted (below) was similarly blunt and to the point:

awardmestars_screenshot.gif

Even the name of the software, “awardmestars”, was a bit of a giveaway. And yet it still won 16 ‘awards’. Here they are:

all_awards2.gif

Some of them look quite impressive, but none of them are worth the electrons it takes to display them.

The obvious explanation is that some download sites give an award to every piece of software submitted to them. In return they hope that the author will display the award with a link back to them. The back link then potentially increases traffic to their site directly (through clicks on the award link) and indirectly (through improved page rank from the incoming links). The author gets some awards to impress their potential clients and the download site gets additional traffic.

This practise is blatantly misleading and dishonest. It makes no distinction between high quality software and any old rubbish that someone was prepared to submit to a download site. The download sites that practise this deceit should be ashamed of themselves. Similarly, any author or company, that displays one of these ‘awards’ is either being naive (at best) or knowingly colluding in the scam (at worst).

My suspicions were first aroused by the number of five star awards I received for my PerfectTablePlan software. When I went to these sites all the other programs on them seemed to have five star awards as well. I also noticed that some of my weaker competitors were proudly displaying pages full of five star awards. I saw very few three or four star awards. Something smelled fishy. Being a scientist by original training, I decided to run a little experiment to see if a completely worthless piece of software would win any awards.

Having seen various recommendations for the rundenko.com submit-everywhere.com submission service on the ASP forums I emailed the owner, Mykola Rudenko, to ask if he could help with my little experiment. To my surprise, he generously agreed to help by submitting “awardmestars” to all 1033 sites on their database, free of charge.

According to the report I received 2 weeks after submissions began “awardmestars” is now listed on 218 sites, pending on 394 sites and has been rejected by 421 sites. Approximately 7% of the sites that listed the software emailed me that it had won an award (I don’t know how many have displayed it with an award, without informing me). With 394 pending sites it might win quite a few more awards yet. Many of the rejections were on the grounds of “The site does not accept products of this genre” (it was listed as a utility) rather than quality grounds.

The truth is that many download sites are just electronic dung heaps, using fake awards, dubious SEO and content misappropriated from PAD files in a pathetic attempt to make a few dollars from Google Adwords. Hopefully these bottom-feeders will be put out of business by the continually improving search engines, leaving only the better sites. I think there is still a role for good quality download sites. But there needs to be more emphasis on quality, classification, and additional content (e.g. reviews). Whether it is possible for such a business to be profitable, I don’t know. However, it seems to work in the MacOSX world where the download sites are much fewer in number, but with much higher quality and more user interaction.

Some download site owners did email me to say either “very funny” or “stop wasting my time”. Kudos to them for taking the time to check every submission. I recommend you put their sites high on your list next time you are looking for software:

www.filecart.com

www.freshmeat.net

www.download-tipp.de (German)

This is the response I got from Lothar Jung of download-tipp.de when I showed him a draft of this article:

“The other side for me as a website publisher is that if you do not give each software 5 stars, you don’t get so many back links and some authors are not very pleased with this and your website. When I started download-tipp.de, I wanted to create a site where users can find good software. So I decided the visitor is important, and not the number of backlinks. Only 10% of all programs submitted get the 5 Suns Award.”

Another important issue for download sites is trust. I want to know that the software I am downloading doesn’t contain spyware, trojans or other malware. Some of the download sites have cunningly exploited this by awarding “100% clean” logos. I currently use the Softpedia one on the PerfectTablePlan download page. It shouldn’t be too difficult in principle to scan software for known malware. But now I am beginning to wonder if these 100% clean logos have any more substance than the “five star”awards. The only way to find out for sure would be to submit a download with malware, which would be unethical. If anyone has any information about whether these sites really check for malware, I would be interested to know.

My thanks to submit-everywhere.com for making this experiment possible. I was favourably impressed by the thoroughness of their service. At only $70 I think it is excellent value compared to the time and hassle of trying to do it yourself. I expect to be a paying customer in future.

** Addendum 1 **

This little experiment has been featured on reddit.com, digg.com, slashdot.com, stumbleupon.com and a number of other popular sites and blogs. Consequently there have been hundreds of comments on this blog and on other sites. I am very flattered by the interest. But I also feel like Dr Frankenstein, looking on as my experiment gains a life of its own. If I had known the article was going to be read by so many people I would have taken a bit more time to clarify the following points:

  • I have no commercial interest in, or prior relationship with, the three download sites mentioned. I singled them out because I infer from emails received that they have a human-in-the-loop, checking all submissions (or a script that passes the Turing test, which is even more praiseworthy). I offered all three a chance to be quoted in the article. Today I received a similar email from tucows.com, but they were too late to make the article. I don’t know if they read the article before they emailed me.
  • I have no commercial interest in, or prior relationship with, the automatic submission service mentioned. I approached them for help, which they generously provided, free of charge.
  • The only business mentioned in which I have a commercial interest is my own table planning software, PerfectTablePlan.

** Addendum 2 **

23 awards ‘won’ at the latest count.

324 thoughts on “The software awards scam

  1. Scott Kane

    G’day Andy,

    Yep. I think we all secretly suspected this – but kudos for doing the experiment as it shows those suspicions to be founded. As Alan commented you might get some nasty feedback from those pepr’s who are doing this. Ignore them. mISV’s and their potential customers need to know the truth – and hey! They could always consider cleaning up their act (or hauling their collective butts off the internet ).

    Scott

  2. Paul Farnell

    That’s brilliant! I too have received dozens of awards for a terrible piece of software (by today’s standards) that I released about 10 years ago. It still wins 5-star awards today. I assumed it was some kind of link scam but this experiment proves it.

  3. Nick Hebb

    You evil genius! This is absolutely hilarious.

    BTW, I Googled “awardmestars” and gave a rave review on the first site in the results.

  4. Yanic

    Thanks for the info and the nice work Andy, truly a 5-star effort :o)

    And yet another hat to wear for the mISV owner (“investigative reporter” anyone?).

  5. Derek Pollard

    Andy, what a hero!

    The big question I have though is this: Does the average customer actually fall for products displaying a page full of those awards, or do they smell a scam?

  6. Andy Brice Post author

    >expect a bit of hate mail

    I don’t really care what dishonest people think of me.

    >Does the average customer actually fall for products displaying a page full of those awards

    I think the less experienced ones may. It can look quite impressive on a product site. It has the opposite effect on me though.

  7. Phil

    I’ve always wondered how even the legitimate companies assign such a star rating to software. Do they just look for a consistent UI and no obvious bugs? How can an owner of a software download site know that your software is any better then your competitors unless they are planning a wedding? It’s not exactly like reviewing a movie!

  8. Tech-Pro Downloads

    I have even had deleted products of mine for which the download and PAD file are no longer available get 5 star awards and certified 100% free of viruses and spyware. Well I suppose if you can’t download it you can’t get infected! I guarantee this won’t happen if you submit your products to my site because I only list those I can actually *sell* (and for which you’ll let me be an affiliate.)

  9. Keith Casey

    Wow, great report… I honestly didn’t know this stuff goes on, but it’s not all that surprising.

    Honestly, I’d be concerned if *any* app had 100%/5 stars across the board. I’m sorry but I have yet to find any app that everyone loves completely. Having a few 3’s and 4’s mixed in there to pull down the average would make it a bit more believable and more like a set of humans scoring these.

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  11. Bob Walsh

    Andy, great job! You’ve done the microISV industry a major service and I for one am in your corner. This practice is hurting each and every microISV by fueling the bad opinion many people have about software from microISVs/shareware. Good job!

    I really think any microISV reading this post should link to it and condemn these spam directories.

  12. Starr

    Andy,

    I don’t think you quite understand the genius of your accomplishment. It’s no wonder you won the awards – You’ve written the first piece of bug free software. It does exactly what it’s supposed to….Nothing.

    Seriously – Very cool experiment.

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  14. Paul

    Excellent work. I’ve been wishing for a way to make all such sites disappear from Google search results. In addition to being cheesebag linkwhores as you demonstrate, they also make it much harder to find actual developers’ sites when all you have is the name of an app.

  15. ToBo

    How about submiting a program containing the icar-testvirus. Every virus-scanner detects it although it’s no real virus. It would be really interesting to see how many 100% clean awards you would get for it…

  16. Matthew

    I practice, this is not very different from the “Best Of Seattle!” (or San Francisco, or New York, or any urban area) “awards” that local weeklies, newspapers, and magazines give out every year. They name 4000 establishments “Best of” and send each a banner, plaque, or certificate; those vain or gullible enough to buy into this scheme proudly hang the honorarium somewhere prominent, giving the issuer free advertising and themselves unearned pats on the back.

  17. Andy Brice Post author

    >How about submiting a program containing the icar-testvirus.

    >Submit an eicar test file

    That would show sites that did run scans, but it wouldn’t show which sites don’t run any scan at all (they could just claim not to test for this particular virus).

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  19. Paul Macfarlane

    What would be great is a list of all the sites that actually reject your submission. Those being the legitimate sites. That way we could all promote/reward those operators and avoid the rest.

  20. askbusinesscoach

    I think this blog would come off more sincere if you had not provided site names of those you suggest are genuine.

  21. Roche

    @askbusinesscoach I think that would reduce this experiment to little more than a rant. The usefulness of this article relies on both the positive and negative. It’s also important in our industry to reward the people who have some integrity.

  22. Andy Brice Post author

    >I think this blog would come off more sincere if you had not provided site names of those you suggest are genuine.

    I named (or at least displayed the images of) the guilty. It seemed only fair to praise those that did proper checking. At the time of writing I have no business relationship with any of the 3 named sites or submit-everywhere.com .

  23. David

    @Roche I agree with you. It’s also a way for the author to “apologize” for time those site took to review the “software”

  24. roz

    So good of you to create this experiment and report. Whilst software designers are glad of awards to help them along, this clearly separates the real from the pretend. Thank you.

  25. The Director

    I am happy this happened. Why? Because I am making a top quality download site. It’s nice to see bad download sites take a fall. “Evil Grin”.

  26. Kathy Salisbury

    Great exposé , Andy! Of course it’s a marketing ploy, but as you showed so well in your experiment, not a very good one. In fact, the proliferation of these awards actually dilutes the meaningfulness of real awards – sad to say.

    Customer testimonials are much more effective at selling me on a product. Yes, testimonials might also be faked, but at least you can read between the lines and make an educated guess about their honesty.

  27. Adrian Palacios

    Absolutely fascinating; in hindsight it’s blatantly obvious, but it truly never crossed my mind that these sights were participating in such horrible deception. Thanks!

  28. rlmerrick

    Excellent experiment and article. Proof once again that awards, like testimonials can be manipulated to say whatever one wants. Unfortunately too many people remain ignorant of these and other more sinister practices and continue to believe what they see. Have you considered submitting your results to the popular press as opposed to letting them find out for themselves?

  29. Ed Tajchman

    Great stuff! this is typical of everything on the internet. It’s an advertising nightmare. How can a capatilistic society streamline our digital information into a more organic design? To start, by doing work like this and supporting the real sites that you mentioned.

  30. Andy Brice Post author

    >I’m guessing this blog post will bring you an absolute truck-load of back-links.

    Especially when I start handing out 5 star awards for good comments…

  31. JimmyB

    As if this is really an expose …

    We often submit via Rudenko – it’s a great way to get your software out and “known” about. We get all the awards and in the early days (like four years ago) I thought … WOW … look what everyone thinks. I still keep the awards on the site for posterity but refuse to provide backlinks.

    You soon realise that 99% of those download sites are rubbish and create autogenerated pages based on your PAD just so they insert Google Adwords etc.. to make money. However, there is a couple of those sites I do like in addition to the authors: Softpedia and MajorGeeks. They provide something useful like verifying your software is virus/trojan free.

  32. Sigurdur

    Simply brilliant! It´s really interesting to google awardmestars and check out the promises of the download sites.

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  34. Chris Brice

    Hey Andy nice work, I never realised that you were setting out to become the Morgan Spurlock of the software community :-)

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  36. Nick Hebb

    > Especially when I start handing out 5 star awards for good comments…

    Now there’s a WordPress plug-in just begging to be developed.

  37. Niko Bellic

    Wow – I always knew there was something suspicious about them. I’ve seen the worst software proudly showing they won X award, and I always wondered how they got that.

  38. Stephane Grenier

    First, congratulations on the success of your post Andy!

    It was a fantastic read. Not only that, you confirmed what a lot of us suspected but didn’t test out. That’s why after the first round of awards we stopped posting them ourselves.

    However, and even though you’ve definitely proven most of those awards are shams, if you don’t post any you’ll look weak compared to your competition who may be blasting their site with them. Gotta love that perception thing.

    Hopefully your article will get enough attention that most people will realize it and we can all move on, away from these virtually useless awards.

  39. mehdi

    yes, I wasn’t surprised by the result …
    I would have used promosoft to submit to a lot of websites..
    Otherwise, I wonder what’s the purpose of these junkie websites i.e with fake ratings and no user reviews: no one visit them and they just SPAM the web.
    There’s spamming, because, as soon as you make a search with google for your submitted software, you find a ton of uninteresting websites…. (no way for someone to gather relevant information about the product).
    I prefer at all , to submit manually to a dozen of QUALITY websites and avoid spamming instead of submitting to hundred crappy websites, that provides NO CUSTOMERS at all.

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  44. Bapudi

    I reverse engineered a computer system in which the contents of your nothingware are the machine code for a super-powerful stock trading engine. So now your “program” really is a program, kind of like Pinnochio becoming a real boy. You should be proud!

  45. Tony

    Great experiment and really well written results! Definitely caused me to read the other entries in your blog and see that they are also all well written. You just got yourself another subscriber.

  46. Gerald

    Thanks for taking the time to do this! Gives us some good sites to look at and the heads up on what might be on many other sites.

    Appreciate the work!

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  49. maxwellhammer

    I’m surprised SEO spammers haven’t manipulated this to drive traffic to their own sites.

    A few hundred links from such sites could help your google juice.

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  52. Andy Brice Post author

    >I’m also a bit surprised that your program showed up on PCWorld.

    They probably get hundreds of submissions per week, so perhaps it isn’t surprising they don’t check them all. At least they didn’t give it a bogus award – a couple of mischievious PCWorld users have given it good reviews though.

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  54. phantom

    Heh, this is awesome. Currently 10300 results on Google for awardmestars, so I suspect that alot of these download sites have multiple domains.

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  57. Tarmo Toikkanen

    How about using Microformat voting to indicate that you’re not actually endorsing the sites that you link to? (http://microformats.org/wiki/votelinks) Basically adding attribute rev=”vote-against” into the A tags. I don’t think many indexing services use it yet, but some might. And it would make sense to formally show that you’re kind of against using the sites that you link to.

    Anyway, great experiment! I used to do shareware back in the 90s, until I moved to open source. Back then the ftp servers had at least some back bone with their quality controls.

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  63. Jamie

    If you were going to test the virus scanners, the “virus” to send that is recognized by the most scanners (all scanners that I am aware of) is EICAR. You argue that they can submit that their scanner doesn’t detect it. This is true of any given malware. Eicar is an industry standard for testing scanners. http://www.eicar.org/anti_virus_test_file.htm

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  67. Dave

    Excellent job, I had always suspected that these awards were totally bogus; but now we have proof. Even better are the ones who put those awards in their print ads!

    BUT, the is a problem. Your program is 100% bug free AND it does exactly what you claimed it does. Nothing but generate awards. So, by actually doing nothing, without bugs, it deserves an award. Now if you claimed that it did nothing; but then would defrag your hard drive, organize your emails, wash the dishes, or whatever, then it is doing something it isn’t supposed to do and thus shouldn’t win anything.

    Anyway, great job!

  68. Danniel

    well, you are not quite right. your software has right installer, doesn’t crash, so it deserves an award!

    :)

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  75. Brian

    Nice work on this, Your test “program” was unbelievably blatant, yet it still found those who have forgotten that one should be in business to create real product, not just profit.

    The next thing that should be tested is magazine review of new hardware products:
    Late last year, I purchased an item for my home network, made by a very well known company. In short, the intent was to buy a product that would drastically reduce the hours I’d need to spend supporting my home network (among other expected benefits), Plugged in, the resident software on the device quickly proved that the trusted magazine reviewers had never even taken the thing out of the box and used it. I’m having to replace the firmware with open source software to get it to do the things promised on the cover. It’s not saving me any time.

    Too bad it’s just about the money these days. The Internet badly needs an injection of ethics and principles.

    Once again, thank you!

  76. Toni

    thanks from those of us out here that have no clue what this stuff is all about and helping us learn……i am keeping a record of the sites you recommended………..t

  77. Jordan Harding

    Re: John Smith – SiteAdvisor flags filecart.com

    We’re aware that SiteAdvisor flagged a few products we had on File Cart several months ago, they were removed immediately, unfortunately SiteAdvisor seems to ‘never’ update their findings despite reporting to them (using their reporting tool) that the products have indeed been removed.

    Google should release a similar service, they have the power to keep the information current. McAfee is in way over their head.

  78. Dee Hughes

    LOL absolutely priceless! As a download listing site webmaster I knew about this years ago, there are a few ‘awards’ that are meaningful but most are just a link exchange tool & eye candy for visitors.

    I’m not sure if submit-everywhere submits to my site, they don’t list the sites individually. We’re not a public listing site, we only list true freeware (a free download or free trial is NOT freeware!) & I check every submission myself. We don’t encourage auto-submits but I love the ones with pad file links, there’s more info in there than the author usually wants *me* to know about!

    If I’d seen your program submission Lothar I would have emailed you to thank you for giving me a chuckle ;)

    I have a suspicion that some of the “100% clean” awards got given out without a great deal of attention to detail, I’ve reported a couple to Softpedia that they shouldn’t have missed. Then again some distributors are sneaky, they submit a program, wait until it’s listed everywhere & then add things to the program but rarely change the website details. Programs hosted / distributed from China or India need extra caution.

    Jordan you’re absolutely right about SiteAdvisor & I second your comments on Google & McAfee.

    SiteAdvisor user reviews should be taken with a LARGE pinch of salt!
    I checked my own site, one ‘reviewer’ reports a “thread” (threat?!?)
    “Casalemedia however is a known thread to your system and should be avoided ”
    – they’re an ad *agency* – & he then links to a “removal” site which is one of the anti spyware scams!!

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  81. Tom

    I’ve always suspected a lot of those award filled sites to be bogus but without having any evidence to back that up. So thanks for investigating this.

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  86. Adam

    This doesn’t just happen in the software arena. The certification rackets of some professions work in a similar fasion. Like in the self help industry some guy sets up a fake foundation and his friend sets up another, then they find more people who want to be self help gurus and they all set up an origization. Then the proceede to give each other awards and write copy on the back of thier worthless books. Also works the same way for some activist groups too. One guy sets up his origization, the next guy sets up his. Then they all call each other experts then they say oh I’m an expert reconized by Crap Origiziation A, B, C, D isn’t that impressive? I’m sure it happens in other areas as well.

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  89. Robert

    There is a way to test the “Clean” ratings.

    From various sites (mostly antivirus companies) you can get a “Virus Test String”. This is not a virus of anykind, however, it does appear to be a virus to antivirus software. They are used to verify that an antivirus program is working, and it’s alert settings are functioning the way the admin expects.

    I’m including a link to EICAR, one type of “Test Virus”.

    http://www.eicar.org/anti_virus_test_file.htm

    I Hope this helps you out.

  90. jhn

    One thing I did notice going to the Mac is that the d/l sites are much better. Versiontracker, Macupdate, and now (especially) osx.iusesthis.com are great. Of course, they all pale next to the Debian software repositories, but that’s another matter.

    Versiontracker has a Windows section; I’m sure you’ll find it’s top notch. And I thought freshmeat is mostly known for free software?

  91. Brook Monroe

    Of course something “smelt fishy.” A smelt is a fish of the family Osmeridae, which might naturally have something of a smell to it. :D

    Anyhow, great experiment, and thanks for going through all the fuss and potential embarrassment to ferret it all out.

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  95. Andy Brice Post author

    I have added an addendum which clarifies a few points. I have also removed a superfluous footnote and corrected the typo “smelt” to “smelled”.

  96. Dan

    I googled awardmestars as well. The second link was PCWorld. However the page said:
    Our apologies for the inconvenience, but the page you requested cannot be found.

    You may have followed an old link or mistyped the URL. Please check the spelling and punctuation of the URL, and reload/refresh the page.

    Just thought this was funny.

    ttyl

  97. Tim Swanson

    Did anyone catch the message at the bottom of the DownloadPipe page? (I know it’s auto-generated, but it’s pretty funny nonetheless.)

    Note: Software piracy is theft. Using a awardmestars crack, password, serial number, registration code or key generator is illegal and prevents future development of awardmestars.

  98. Myname??

    So the program does as the documentation says it does? It can be removed/uninstalled cleanly?
    What more can one ask of a program?

  99. a looser

    oh yeah soon upgrading from XP so is there a version for Vista? maybe an upgrade path? kthxbye

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  101. C.Cruz

    Awesome experiment! I learned a few things today.

    A search for awardmestars produces first page result totals with the following:

    750 hits on Google – 4,430 hits on Yahoo – 577 hits on MSN (Live Search) as of 8/17/07 (6:40pm EST). btw, if you want to track this info I recommend http://www.zuula.com (multiple search options).

    So I learned:

    1. It’s also a great way to weed out some of the less professional software sites

    2. It’s a good way to test the search engines. Yahoo says over 4k but will only display 206 sites. Google says 750 but displays 124, etc… A few things can be gleaned from this (how fast DB gets updated, popular sites relating to specific keywords, why search results totals don’t match actual sites available, etc…)

    3. the service you used kicks some serious butt.

    4. Rejection is good thing. I’m sure alot of users would like to see the rejection list or at least your top 20 or so based on this test.

    5. Slashdot shows up on Google/Yahoo News for “awardmestars” but none of the sites carrying this info do (at least not yet). MSN News zilch.

    6. People love successful Web Experiments:-)

    Added you to my Feeds in case you decide to run other experiments, seriously:-)

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  107. Bill Johnsen

    Cosmologically, even 1 star has so much potential! So, here you go.. your 1 star, from me…

    *

    -god

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  110. AP

    Well done. A great effort. We all can do our bit to make a difference around in our own capacity. And, you have demonstrated it very well by the post. Hmmm, i need to learn a lot! :-) Thank you. Wishing you success in whatever you do.

  111. HubmaN

    Well, I think I’d like to take this chance, to say something that I believe everyone’s wanted to say.
    PWN3D, BIZATCH!

  112. nix

    “If anyone has any information about whether these sites really check for malware, I would be interested to know.”

    If you get any information on the malware ratings; it would be a great follow up to this posting.

    Great post.
    Regards.

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  118. Nick

    Yes, we have seen this too :) Innocent joke :)

    Another problem for us is to clean out from our database audio/video/zune converters which are the same software products but has different skins. So please guys do not submit duplicates or same products under different names, we will find them and delete all listings.

    http://www.filesland.com – shareware archive webmaster.

  119. Nick

    More on the subject: our statistics from the last updates show 60% of submitted PAD files is “PAD spam”. So any software archive that does not do manual verification is pretty much useless to the public. Thwrefore submitting CD-ejectors or “free sceensavers with spyware” is unadvisable.

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  124. nico

    Maybe you got the awards because your programs did what they were supposed to do : Nothing at all :0)

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  126. minimal design

    Damn… I’m so disappointed… I got a bunch of those awards after I submitted a minimal screen saver to macupdate (I did not get the award from macupdate, those guys check everything manually)… I also got a “no spyware – safe” sort of award… I hope those don’t work the same way… That would be *really* scary…

  127. Antony

    Nice article, but no wonder most awards are worth nothing. I’ve removed them all from my site 2 years ago.

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  130. Steve Firth

    People like shiney things, had a web client once ask me if he could have the w3c compliance logos on his website …

    he of course has no idea who w3c are or wtf css even is.

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  136. Lee Stacey

    Excellent article. Well done.

    I wonder whether website content awards work in the same manner. I’ve always suspected that they do.

    I might run a little experiment myself, unless someone already has???

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  140. Mason

    Thanks for doing this, I had always thought this was the case. I had downloaded some software before that had all kinds of 5 star reviews, and after using it, it had spyware in it and just sucked. I bookmarked the sites you listed and won’t use any of the ones that listed those awards!

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  142. Paul

    Come and put your software on my website, I will give it 11 stars! Yes, my site doesn’t do five star software, nor ten star software, but only software that deserves a whole eleven stars!!!

    (go google for “Spinal Tap eleven” if you don’t understand!)

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  145. charon

    Very good, brilliant idea and execution!

    I don’t agree with using EICAR for testing if the “malware free” label on download sites is of any worth. If they detect it, they’re just a notch above not-scanning-at-all. If the download sites are to be trustworthy, they have to detect cleverly hidden malware. But there could be several stages for testing using various levels of software, for example: EULA mentions some adware or spyware (but it’s not really implemented) or: EULA specifically says something is not done by the SW, but in fact the SW does it (even tho it might be completely benign) or: SW contains a “safe” spyware that contacts your site on New Years Eve and send 1 or 0 depending on the user’s PC configuration.

  146. Hugo

    Some more 5 stars:
    http://www.goldsofts.com/soft/842/59748/awardmestars.html
    http://www.downloadtopc.com/get/120/59020/awardmestars.html

    Perhaps it would be worthwhile to go through all the 1000+ sites to see how they rate it. Or at least for the submit-everywhere.com people, so they can charge 10$ extra to not include those scam download sites :).

    Some sites they submit to even have the “This site may harm your computer.” warning on google. I wouldn’t want my software to end up on those sites.
    http://www.google.com/search?q=awardmestars+site%3Awww.freeddls.com

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  148. Anonymous

    Kudos for the good idea!
    I hope that sort of SEO spamming in download sites field will cease soon, possibly with bigger search engines applying more severe rules for ads revenue (making the scam unprofitable) and by improving the page ranking algorithms with more weight given to human-edited, high quality entries, like those ones on directories like DMOZ, or on Wikipedia and similar projects.

    BTW, I noticed that some of the scamming download sites seem also spidering the web to add software in their databases, since inexplicably list software I’m sure I’ve never submitted to some of them; probably some of them just shares the same databases under different names and logos.

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  150. MajorGeeks.Com

    It was probably submitted to us (?) but we can’t possibly respond to all of them, we either accept it or delete it. Great article, we will link to it tommorow, it is VERY telling, I hope many people read it.

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  152. totoito

    And how about the scammers who say their software has received much praise and display logos of review sites. Only problem is there had been no review of their software by those sites.
    It was great exposing the 5 stars weasels.

  153. Patrick

    Thanks for a great report & investigation! I find it quite humorous that PCWorld hosted the file, and then removed all evidence. I think it would help their rep (with me, at least) to run a story about getting skunked in next month’s issue.

  154. bswarm

    It made my refrigerator run faster, my toilet smell fresher, my clock run slower, and my computer can now work without human intervention!

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  157. Megan Vaillancourt

    Okay…I read articles online all the time. But normally skim through them and move on looking for some valuable information. I read yours word for word. Great Job. I will be passing this article around to my team members they will appreciate the information.

  158. Richard van Buren

    @ Andy Brice, who wrote

    “That would show sites that did run scans, but it wouldn’t show which sites don’t run any scan at all (they could just claim not to test for this particular virus).”

    Andy, this is not quite true; if these sites would claim this, then they would be exposed for not testing for viruses at all! Like at least one previous posters has said: “All anti-virus software tests for this file”, and this is true; so, if you would embed the code of this test-virus into your “DoNothing” program and submit it to sites you suspect not to test, and they still would award you *****, without any comment on the positive their AV-software should have given them, then you know for sure their “100% free of malware and viruses” is a bogus statement!!!

    I agree with you that embedding code for a trojan, root kit, or spyware would be unethical, but then… is providing visitors of a site the false feeling of being 100% safe when downloading from that particular site not also unethical?

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  165. Aaron

    The whole Internet is a scam. People pulling each others pee-pee’s and Google dictating how you do it. It’s dull, boring, repetitive, but every once in awhile someone proves it, as if we don’t already know. People WANT to be lied to and they WANT illusion, that is why they masturbate so much.

    I remember not too long ago, when you had to really create your own site (not a template CMS), that they used to give out “site” awards. Same BS you got here. The Internet is all smoke and mirrors. The bad part is that people believe most of it.

  166. Joel

    Reminds of the ‘quote whores’ that after just one episode, all step up to microphone with abridged accolades of “Best show in years” and “Brilliant!” every time HBO cranks out another tired, boring mini-series featuring characters you can’t understand or care about.
    I think these reviewer yes-men just like seeing their name or name of their mag in print.

  167. David Schwartz

    Funny story:

    I once downloaded an application from a shareware site that said it was “100% guaranteed, spyware, malware, adware free”. Except it wasn’t, when you opened a web page, it opened an ad window attached to it. (Sadly, I didn’t open any web pages before I left.)

    As it happens, this actually caused me quite a bit of pain. Nobody realized this application was causing the window, and people on-site couldn’t track it down. They called me in (from 3 hours away by car) to check the machine as they were afraid it had been compromised/trojaned. I ran several spyware and adware checks, but this program was new, so they didn’t recognize it.

    Anyway, I later contacted the shareware site to ask them how to collect on their guarantee, since I could document actual damages (the gas to go and fix the PC, at a minimum). No response. I repeated the query, no response.

    “100% guaranteed” means *nothing*.

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  180. maria

    You forgot to mention that most of the “download3000deposit.com” like sites turn into “pamandersonsadventures.com” after a while.

    And you as a MISV are punished anyway for their poor page rank and linking to you.

    maria

  181. David

    Here’s a new wrinkle: linkback extortion.

    In so many words: We will announce to the world that your software is average, but if you link back to us, we’ll instead tell everyone that it is excellent!

    Here’s the text of the message I received:

    Congratulations!

    Your software ‘**************’ has been selected and listed by
    PerfectDownloads. Your software has been awarded 3 Cubes based on
    PerfectDownloads’s Software Rating Guidelines. If you put our logo and
    backward link on your site you will get first place position in the category
    where your product is listed and 5 Cubes Award(this is our best award). You
    will also get a link back to your site from your product’s page on our site
    and higher placement in our search results. Below is the HTML code of our 5
    Cubes logo:

    Please write us a letter(if you decide to put our logo and backward link)
    specifying the URL where you have put our logo and backward link so we can
    put your product on the first place in its category, give you a backward
    link and higher placement in the search results.

    Best Regards
    PerfectDownloads Editors Team

  182. invar

    Apparently, the “fake-ware” got rave reviews. Check out the comments at this site:
    http://www.bestsoftware4download.com/software/t-free-awardmestars-download-lmtdinmz.html

    Reviewer: Bill Gates
    Absolutely the best program in it’s niche

    Reviewer: Born Loser
    It’s hard to believe that such a feature rich piece of software would be available for free. I hope the author will consider releasing this as open source. Keep up the great work, you’ve truly whet my appetite to get back into software programming. Cheers!!

    Reviewer: rijun14
    Wow I read the hype about this software but I didn’t think it would be so good until I tried it. I LOVE IT!! It makes me jump up and say “Weeeee!!!”

    It does absolutely everything it clams to be able to do and so much more, and best of all it’s free!!!!!

    Reviewer: Francis
    Damn good piece of software!

    Reviewer: John Roy
    Really amazing piece of software.

    This is what I’ve been looking for for a long time now.
    Worth all the stars it can get :)

    Man that was hikkarious!

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  184. vexx

    Unfortunatelly this is true and it is very annoying. I myself represent a software archive and not only we do not give 5 stars to anyone, we even test and consider the user opinion upon awarding. The sad thing is, those archives that throw to each software a quality award(not matter what), gain immense quantities of backlinks which leaves our site or any other hard working software archive last spots in SERPs.

    Maybe things will change

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  188. Mark Farmer

    Very Nice, And Very Funny

    I Do Run A Very Small Awards Site, But I only Rate Things (Programs\Sites) I Actually Have Used, And Or Tested.

    My Rule Is Anything That Is Junk Never Gets Listed, Only The Best Gets 5 Stars, Nothing Other Than the Best (I Have Found) Gets Listed.

  189. LitePacific

    Good article, but there is a litte more to this than meets the eye.

    I think many of these sites will not post your software if you do NOT post a link back for one. So, in that light, it might be a requirement and in some cases, make sense. Hey, if I put a link to you, you need to recipricate. In the land of Google SEO, that does make sense.

    Also, some sites claim that depending on where and how you place these links, they will rank your software in terms of exposure on their site. Its almost imnpossible to check this or enforce, so not important to most vendors like me. But, if a smart affiliate of mine came along and allwos me to get my software on their homepage, if I did the same for them, hey, I would do it. Makes sense?

    As a vendor of quality software (http://www.giantisland.com/), and one who has used these affiliate sites, I no longer believe in the scam of awards. I do keep a small far away page of these to maintain links I have to have to to keep my software posted on these sites. But if an honest affiliate came to me and offerred me a fair deal and good placement of my product on their site and could gurantee some sales or downloads, I would be willing to market their site from mine. Maybe a banner add, etc. Thats really what the article needs to discuss. Its about link exchange and SEO and marketing. It can be a mutally advantageous deal, but right now, its just hurting customers.

    So, glad some of the truth got out there about these “awards”.

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  191. Peter E.

    Hi,
    GREAT idea and execution!
    The results represent today’s sorry state of the download scene.
    Copied in below is my latest experience and the letter I sent to the spreader of trojans, Teknum SA.
    Greetz,
    Peter E.

    February 02, 2008

    Hi,

    This may be of interest to you:

    Jan. 17, 2008 I installed ‘HandyBits Voice Mail 5.5′ (WinXP Pro-SP2/Linux-dual boot).
    Minutes later Avast reported: Teknum updater, a Trojan.
    WinPatrol warned that the Teknum updater tries to install itself into ‘Startup Programs’.
    A Spybot S&S scan confirmed the trojan infection.

    Searched the Net, found some advice and downloaded the ‘updEnabler’ from their site with which one can disable the updater, so they say.
    After having the auto-updater ‘disabled’ Avast warnings were still popping up every few minutes and, as far as I could determine, the updater still was running in the background, still dialing/reporting.
    This ‘updEnabler’ contains and installs the Aconti-Dialer, also a Trojan. (Detected/deleted by Ad-Aware 2007, full scan.)

    When uninstalling HandyBits V. M. the updater stays behind and with it the never-ending trojan warnings and the warnings about its attempts to sneak into the Startup. I searched for its folder, deleted and shredded it (there is no uninstall entry to be found anywhere); HandyBits Voice Mail 5.5 stopped to work and showed a popup: ‘At least one program file is missing…’

    This Teknum updater itself is extremely persistent and always installs itself again. The culprit is the protected ‘ssmenu.dll’ which was slipped in during the HandyBits installation.
    (‘ssmenu.dll’ in Windows-System32, can be deleted with the tiny free, self-contained, no install ‘KillBox’.)

    What it all means is that, after having uninstalled HandyBits, the updater can not be disabled/removed without deleting whatever a Windows’ Search (‘All files and folders’ and in ‘More advanced options': ‘Search system folders’, ‘Search hidden files and folders’, ‘subfolders’ enabled) still finds when searching for the just above mentioned two names plus the ‘HandyBits’ name.
    Then one has to go into the registry and delete the many entries that contain/refer to ‘teknum’, ‘handybits’ and ‘ssmenu.dll'; however, much of this can not be done safely by the majority of PC users!
    (Registry Crawler provides good detailed info or the free, self-contained, no install RegScanner.)

    The Windows System Restore had tampered with too. (Ad-Aware 2007, full scan.)
    As far as I understand: Even if all the restore points are there/visible and ‘work’, regardless of which restore point one chooses, only the one that restores the Teknum/HandyBits trojans actually works/is being used and the other ones are ignored by System Restore but the name/date/etc. that will show up is the one that has been chosen as the restore point (I am not able to confirm this name change of the RP, it’s dangerous and too time-consuming).
    An infected registry entry/restore point, Information\_restore{A1B49426-43EF-4949-82F8-946398E3105A}\RP711\A0226204.exeInformation\_restore{A1B49426-43EF-4949-82F8-946398E3105A}\RP711\A0226204.exe, for example, can not be accessed, modified or deleted.

    The way out is to simply disable System Restore which will completely delete all files in SR thus also cleaning out any trojan. If a new scan shows that everything is clean System Restore has to be enabled again!

    Additionally, there is a real good chance that Teknum software also installs rootkits into ‘HandyBits’ program users’ computers; am still trying to sort things out but considering Teknum Systems’ absolutely awful antisocial malware track record it certainly could make perfectly ‘good’ sense to them…

    Doing all of the above results in a clean WinXP; no more silent installs, new registry entries, warnings and, most of all, no damage to the Windows O.S. plus a clean System Restore, at least in my case. All in all, this unethical company Tekum Systems did cost me quite a few hours of worries and work that I didn’t ask for.

    I did scan the application’s install.exe before installing the program, the scan showed it as being clean. I guess that the trojan (the updater.exe) is hidden inside the application file, perhaps in form of a few separate parts that are being assembled during or right after the installation of their programs (HandyBits Voice Mail 5.5, in this case) and then immediately becomes active; the updEnabler ‘remedy’ is a fraud, doesn’t do anything to stop the updater from running (hidden) in the background and installs a (second) trojan.

    HandyBits’ programs’ behaviour is an insult to the users of their programs and the public in general and it should not be tolerated. This company’s disregard of users’ privacy (despite of their public statements), the underhanded silent install of Trojans without the users’ knowledge and consent shows utter disrespect for others and stands alone amongst most all other software developers/vendors.

    The Teknum Systems AS. – HandyBits programs’ integrity and trustworthiness is more than questionable; their products install two trojans, contaminate the SR, result in numerous registry entries and a malicious system dll file and therefore should not be listed/promoted/made available for downloading by anyone and most certainly not by a reputable download site.

    I suggest to you that you (your site) remove all HandyBits programs.
    According to the many reports posted on the Net by security experts and individual users, all of HandyBits’ programs silently install the above mentioned hazardous trash that jeopardizes their programs’ users’ privacy and safety.

    At the very least, to spare the unsuspecting downloading public a heck of a lot of grief, you ought to warn the public in bold letters about HandyBits program’s updater’s sneaky behaviour and that the trojans can’t be detected or stopped before and during installation of their programs and also that this situation can’t be remedied after the fact by the average computer user.

    Finally, just one simple question: Why is it that NONE of the trusted major download sites list ANY of the various HandyBits programs???

    Peter E.

    Ps.: Sent an email to HandyBits in the late afternoon of Jan. 17-008, so far I’ve heard nothing back from them.

    Teknum Systems AS., Gjerdrumsveien 14, 0484 Oslo, distributes its software products under the HandyBits name: HandyBits EasyCrypto Deluxe, Zip&Go, File Shredder, VirusScan Integrator (see ‘*’), Voice Mail, and Voice Mail for Kids, they all install the trojans, dialers and the System Restore manipulation.
    * It could well be that this program’s main goal is manipulating the antivirus applications’ ability to detect Teknum’s malwares. *

    From Teknum’s HandyBits site:

    Handybits is your source of top quality software
    Here you can download the best freeware on the net.
    All our software is free of charge for home users.
    Why do we give software away, free of charge?
    We simply believe that some home users will bring our software to their work, and their companies will buy business licenses. (Yeah, right!)

    There’s also a page full of glowing testimonials from customers: http://www.handybits.com/feedback.htm. These customers are obviously totally unaware of that their machines have been infected and are busy working for Teknum whenever they are on line.
    Teknum Systems SA. is quite ‘good’ at what they are doing for many years by now and no one in Norway so far seems to have bothered to stop this rogue and dangerous company from infecting thousands of computers worldwide every year.

    *** When finding an interesting program on an unfamiliar download site one should FIRST DO THE FOLLOWING:

    Visit http://www.download.com/, http://www.snapfiles.com/, http://www.tucows.com/ or any other one of the few remaining trustworthy major download sites.
    If the program is not available there DO NOT DOWNLOAD it from another site, especially not from a site that does not provide a ‘Contact us’ button and this also includes sites that do show a way of contacting them which, when being used, turns out to be a blind link more often than not.
    These sites do not confirm that they have received your mail by either acknowledging it right away on the web page or via automated email; your mail ends up coming back to you: ‘Your message cannot be delivered’, or similarly – meaning that the owners/operators are trying to hide who’s behind their sites.

    It is obvious that deviant software developers/vendors of malicious software are operating many of the lesser known download sites, they are trying this way to dilute the fact that none of the major sites accept their malicious software programs. ***

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  193. Sylvia

    Wonderful expose. What are people who are novices to computers (software) to do? I was very disappointed to see pc world included. I try very hard to investigate things, especially purchases, but it is so hard (next to impossible)to know who, if anyone to trust. Many, many thanks.

  194. Robert

    QUOTE
    “But now I am beginning to wonder if these 100% clean logos have any more substance than the “five star”awards. The only way to find out for sure would be to submit a download with malware, which would be unethical.”

    couldn’t you submit software designed to register as a trojan or virus but is actually harmless? I know there is software like this out there designed to test the effectiveness of peoples firewalls etc.

    something like that would not be unethical as it would not do REAL harm.

  195. Hink

    Are there any legitimate awards at all I wonder? It seems like every box for every greeting card maker that you can buy at staples is covered with 5 star awards. Some of this is decent software but why would legitimate companies want to plaster their boxes with this silliness. Or are there some awards out there that really mean something?

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  197. Steven Woolwroth

    What I’m amazed at is that this software is still on a LOT of download sites and still has a LOT of 5 star awards :D

    It did however get some bad reviews from people looking for software that does absolutely nothing, but then again, they should have read the description, it clearly says it doesn’t even run.

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  202. Paul

    Thanks for the heads-up Andy, how about submitting a program called “BackDoorWoodenHorseFlyMeToBaghdad.execute” and checking out the awards,reviews and download stats on THAT baby!!?

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  205. rinzewind

    hey :) why dont you put the eicar test in the file for cheching if the files are scanned against viruses it is a test file only consistent of this ascii text X5O!P%@AP[4\PZX54(P^)7CC)7}$EICAR-STANDARD-ANTIVIRUS-TEST-FILE!$H+H* try it if ou want it :) put this in a text file and scan :p it is completely harmless, more info about the test is here to be found=http://www.eicar.org/anti_virus_test_file.htm. your article made me thinking and i am willing to so this test myself in some time if you arent going to do it :) but i think ou are more qualified for it :p

  206. Bill

    I think there is a simple way to check whether virus scans are being done by these sites, and to do it without risk while using a real malicious virus as the bait. Just link the virus code into a different program as if it were just data within the program. In other words, so that the bad byte sequence is actually there but cannot be called or executed as instructions in the course of the host program’s operations. It could be as either a linked-in data resource, or even you could use just “dead” code (made with a non-optimizing compiler), like would result from compiling “If FALSE then…”.

    There should be no ethics issue with doing that as it presents no risk of being executed to anyone who downloads and runs the program. But a real virus scanner should still scream with alarms, just from finding a sequence of bytes that is the same as one found within a virus.

  207. free press release

    My friend forwarded this link to me. Thanks for sharing this information. We are not even aware of such type of scams. Competition is heating up and so everyone is trying all sort of tricks to succed in online business. First movers find it easier.

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  213. donfi

    Just a comment about Tucows.com. They are a very old site and trusted by many. They do value their reputation but it has been well earned.

    I have not read any of the many post here beyond your article. So, if I am repeating something someone else has said I am sorry.

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  215. Pingback: software » Blog Archive » The software awards scam

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  219. Rob

    Neat experiment, Andy!
    And a truly brilliant software idea…
    Definitely deserves 5 STARS!!!!!

  220. Rob

    Erm, sorry to be boring – Some people have suggested “ethical” experiments involving distribution of false positive virus code, which can be picked up by antimalware scanners. But wouldn’t that be a kind of “anxietyware”, especially for vulnerable users, such as relative beginners? I’m not sure that would be so ethical.

  221. Derek

    Hi Scott, We at http://www.freesoftware4all.co.uk get a lot of useless software submissions most are submitted by bulk submission sites and it does make it hard to weed out the genuine software from the crap. On an average day we get about 100 submissions and out of that 100 there will be about 5 that are genuine and even these may not make it onto our web pages.
    A lot of submissions are not even programs, they are often get rich quick schemes, diet programs and county records directories etc.
    You have highlighted an important issue but with all the money to be earned by these spammers I cant see it stopping anytime soon, we are considering changing our forms to captcha forms and this will hopefully block most of the spam.
    Rest assured that all the programs on out site are vetted and throughly tested.

  222. j

    Hello.

    I’m SO happy to have found a blog that is useful, makes sense, & apparently is ethical as well.

    Thank you SO VERY much!

    Your point about the ‘awards fever’ & the possibility that their claims relating to malware may be more valid than you realize.

    As a huge freeware junky, I’ve chased various software all over the internet for weeks at a time.

    During some of these adventures I’ve found the program I wanted as many as 10 or 12 times, but was unable to install it.

    Why, you ask?

    Because when I scanned it w/ antivirus &/or antimalware I found that it was infected.
    This has happened several times; I’m not sure exactly how many, but at 6-8 times I’ve downloaded the same program at as many as 10 or 12 different sites, only to have the download fail a malware scan.

    I love downloading & trying out programs; its probably the safest thing I’ve done in the last forty years that won’t make me fat, sick, broke or dead.

    But during the last 12-15 years I’ve learned that safe computing now REQUIRES adequate malware protection.

    IF you can develop a method to test your hypothesis, I think you’ll find that an astounding percentage of download sites are bunk, whack, junk, & just plain bogus.

    Keep up the good work, please.

    I think I’ll be back; it look like I’ve found an intelligent node.

    Sincerely,
    j

  223. Spinal

    one person had said, and i’m paraphrasing… “LOOK AT ALL THE ADS MY SOFTWARE HAS GOTTEN, CLEVERLY DIQUISED AS AWARDS!”

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  225. Pingback: Software deconstruido o cómo un programa inútil gana más de 20 premios

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  227. troin

    Dude… excellent work… hahahaha i laughed my ass out…
    this is the kind of investigation many internet places need. it’s full of dumasses that want to make lots and lots of money out of “nothing at all”… free cash…

  228. Pingback: BrunoProg64 Blog :: Awardmestars: El timo de los premios de software :: April :: 2008

  229. Pingback: Esos premios tan sospechosos... | iPixel.es

  230. Karl Rosenqvist

    A few years ago I noticed something like this, the shareware I was DL’ing was increasingly becoming ridiculously bloated and inefficient. At that time I started using a lot more opensource and it seems I made a good choice. Behold, viruses and spyware is a thing of the past.
    I absolutely love this experiment, it reminds me of a few I’ve seen done on communitys by guys wondering exactly how other guys react to women on communitys. It’s all fake nowadays.

  231. nawaf

    Excellent experiment and article. Proof once again that awards, like testimonials can be manipulated to say whatever one wants. Unfortunately too many people remain ignorant of these and other more sinister practices and continue to believe what they see. Have you considered submitting your results to the popular press as opposed to letting them find out for themselves?

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