How to Tell if a Link is Safe

How to be sure a website is credible...

When it’s necessary to find out if a link goes to a valid site, the usual advice is to copy the link and paste it in the browser bar. That will lead to the site without the danger of a connection that can set malware. So it’s good advice!

How to Be Sure A Website is Credible

However, when the user gets to the location, it may be totally unfamiliar. What then? First, look at the search results page itself. Are there multiple links to the site itself and to various content items from it? That’s one positive sign. Look at the URL itself: is it https (secure transfer protocol)? The little padlock in the address bar indicates that communication is encrypted to protect the transmission. Sometimes you will see the words Verified Company beside it. The padlock is a sign of a legitimate real-world company. All these mean that the communication is safe; they do not necessarily mean that the user is safe from the site itself.

Those are the technical features and they are essential, However, there are a number of important clues that don’t require getting deep into the technical stuff. First, be sure that your security software is updated and enabled. Then heed the warning if your security or browser says the site is dangerous. Don’t go there!

If the site is safe enough to visit, look first at the content. Like email, if the website content has misspellings, grammatical errors or stilted phrasing, be suspicious. Trustworthy sites are more careful about the quality of their content. Also, if the site seems to be unusually full of ads, that may be a sign that it has no valid content to offer, just ads that may be a conduit for malware.

And finally, take a look at the Contact Us page. Not all legitimate sites make it easy to get through to a human being these days, but if it is legitimate the site will have multiple valid contact channels and will show a valid physical address.

If you have good reason to suspect a website, you should report it. On Firefox or Microsoft Edge, while you are on the site, look under Help on the menu in the upper right for Report Deceptive Site. Google has a page on which you can report unsafe sites.

Tools to Verify Links

There’s a semantic issue here. Websites need to check frequently to see that all their links are working, so many of the tools are IT tools, not consumer. The word “verify” tends to lead to the consumer tools. Here are some of the recommended ones:

  • Google Safe Browsing. This one is a little difficult to find because it is part of a page that includes a comprehensive report, interesting but technical, on what Google does to identify malicious sites. I’ve given the direct link and if you like it, you might want to bookmark it.
  • ScanURL checks on a number of issues like malware distribution and phishing accusations. It is a little more difficult to use because it requires a reason/source for the link, but it works quickly and well.
  • URLVOID is easy to use and gives a nice report.
  • Norton Safe Web is from the same company that produces the security suite but is a free stand-alone page.

Shortened links (bit.ly.com, tinyurl.com and many others) are a special category. Shortening links is perfectly legitimate but it can also mask questionable URLs. A site called CheckShortURL expands and shows the entire link. It gives access to the content on various search engines and lists some of the link checkers. That allows the user to check the link without ever clicking on it.

There are other link verification tools. Some have specialized purposes; some I checked simply don’t work quickly or well. There are many apps that can be downloaded. I did not download any apps and I suggest researching any security app carefully before downloading. It’s a great cover for trouble makers.

Warning: a lot of scams are showing up on Facebook and Twitter these days. Links you find on the social media sites are good ones on which to try out the link verification tools. It doesn’t prove anything to put in something like amazon.com. If you want to find some dodgy-looking links, go to your Spam folder. You don’t want to click on anything there but you can copy out just the website name from the email header you see and use one of the tools to check it.


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