This review appears in the September issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.
Innovations such as the internet and always-on broadband have created a revolution in terms of the information that's available to us. But they've also opened up our PCs to a deluge of rather less desirable visitors.
From floods of spam blocking our email accounts to maliciously designed cookies passing on our personal information to third parties, it's enough to make the typical user slash their internet usage, restricting themselves only to tried and trusted sites such as Amazon and AOL. And, according to security goliath McAfee, that's exactly what large numbers of internet users are now doing.
Luckily, it's come up with a rather neat tool in SiteAdvisor. And even better, this program comes as a free download to anyone who uses Internet Explorer or FireFox.
McAfee has spent considerable amounts of time trawling sites up and down the web, assessing what happens to your email account if you sign up to anything, and what cookies or other programs may be dropped on to your PC without your knowledge. Once installed – you should be up and running inside a minute – SiteAdvisor shows up as an icon in the top righthand corner of the web browser.
While this is green, you know the site has been checked and found to cause few, if any, problems. Should you visit a website that might change the browser defaults or send out decent numbers of emails, it'll change to yellow.
If the site is considered really dangerous then SiteAdvisor will turn red and put up a warning bubble. Such sites bundle ad- or spyware with downloadable files, or flood email accounts with spam.
These checks are applied using search engines as well. So next time you embark on a Google search, you'll know exactly how safe the results are. As a small down side, it does take slightly longer for entries to be posted up. But we're talking about only an extra second or so.
SiteAdvisor has reams of information available on many sites. It can tell you whether you're likely to receive lots of emails as a result of signing up. Perhaps more importantly, it can reveal what types of email you're going to get. Free offers from the site itself are viewed in a more favourable light than messages from third parties claiming they can boost your flagging sexual prowess.
Where McAfee's research has turned up downloadable files on a site, these are often checked to see what effect they had on a system. Where downloading a file installs additional programs on to your computer or modifies the system registry, SiteAdvisor can make sure you're aware of this. It won't always, however, be obvious what the effect of those changes may be.
You can check out a map of what other sites you're most likely to be redirected to. These have colour ratings, so you can get an idea of whether the site's connections are safe or not.
Potentially the most useful of all is the user reviews section. Here, people post their past experiences with the site in question. Obviously, this feature will get stronger as SiteAdvisor becomes more popular. Even so, I was encouraged to see that in the case of a site that I knew from bitter experience to be rife with pop-ups and spam, the reviews expressed such concerns in large numbers.
Inevitably, such a service does tend to stand or fall according to how many sites are actually covered. McAfee claims that it's already analysed over 95 percent of current web traffic, and it's picking up on addresses all the time. Should the company not have got round to the site you're on, SiteAdvisor will remain grey.
I tested countless websites and found only two – an obscure off-shore betting service and a free television site – that SiteAdvisor was unable to deliver a verdict on.