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You think you’ve found the program you’re looking for, so you click the big, green “Download” button. You end up with something completely unrelated.

You’ve fallen victim to one of the most annoying things on the web: ads that look like download buttons. Why do these exist, and how can you avoid them? Here’s a rundown.

Why Do These Ads Exist?

First things first: these ads rarely link to anything helpful. At best they lead to malware 10 Easy Ways to Never Get a Virus 10 Easy Ways to Never Get a Virus With a little basic training, you can completely avoid the problem of viruses and malware on your computers and mobile devices. Now you can calm down and enjoy the internet! Read More , or toolbars. At worst they’re the first step in a phishing scam What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? I’ve never been a fan of fishing, myself. This is mostly because of an early expedition where my cousin managed to catch two fish while I caught zip. Similar to real-life fishing, phishing scams aren’t... Read More .

So, why does the Internet let them exist? Basically: because they work. Getting people to click on ads is hard work, but deception can be reliable. And, it’s assumed, anyone who falls for such a ploy is probably a good mark for any number of things, from unnecessary software to identity theft.

This means there are huge potential payouts to anyone who can slip such ads into a page – and if there’s money to be made, scammers will work hard to try to make it.



So yeah, these ads are a problem – and prey on the less web-savvy among us. Why do websites allow them, then?

In some cases, it’s because sites can’t find other advertisers. Torrent trackers, for example, aren’t exactly popular with companies looking to sell things – and the same goes for file sharing services. These sites place such ads to pay the bills, and apparently aren’t concerned with what that might mean for their less-savvy users.

But sometimes such ads even up on relatively mainstream sites, like MakeUseOf. Why do we allow them?

We don’t, but they show up anyway. A good number of our ads come from Google, but we don’t get to pre-approve what does and doesn’t show up on the site. And there are tons of scammers out there designing such ads, doing everything they can to make sure they get through Google’s filters. We report such ads to Google whenever we see them, but more keep showing up.


Google blocks millions of bad ads every month, and bans the companies that make them from creating more ads. Scammers just keep making them, and finding loopholes, because it’s profitable.

It’s an ongoing chess match between website managers, Google and the scammers – and it sometimes feels like it won’t end.

How To Spot Fake Download Ads

Google is trying to fight these ads, and so are website owners. Such ads keep getting through, though, so it’s important to know how to defend yourself.

First things first: most technology blogs do not offer big “Download” buttons, preferring instead to link to the download page of the company in question. If you see a big “Download” button, it’s probably an ad. Look instead for a text link in the article itself.

Still not sure? There are a few other things to look out for.

1. Spot ad boxes

Ads come in a limited number of sizes. There’s the traditional banner, and the square ad you usually see in sidebars. Here are the shapes to expect:


If you see “download” button shaped like an ad, don’t click it. Google’s ads also feature this symbol at the top-right corner:


If you see this “X”, beside that symbol, you know you’re looking at an an ad – not a download button for the software you’re reading about. You can click the “X” to report this ad, stopping it from showing up for you on any site you visit.

2. Hover Over The Link

There are exceptions, but actual download links usually point you directly toward the file you’re looking for. If you hover your mouse on such a link, you should see the filename you expect at the bottom of your screen.


If you see “”, as shown above, don’t click the button: this is not a valid download link. If you see the filename you’re looking for, however, you’re probably fine.

If the filename you see here doesn’t look like the file you want, or even a link to the site where it might be offered, don’t click the link.

What should your download look like? To review:

  • Windows programs are typically .EXE or .ZIP files, and should be named after the program you’re downloading.
  • Mac programs are typically .DMG or .ZIP files, and should be named after the program you’re downloading. They may also link to the Mac App Store.
  • Music and video files are never, ever .EXE files. Don’t download an .EXE if you’re looking to download a song or video.

3. Test The Button

Still not sure? Go ahead and click the button. If you see a website – or a file download – that’s completely unrelated, pull back. This is not the file you’re looking for, and it’s unlikely you’ll find it by clicking more ads.

If you downloaded the file, but still have doubts, use your malware program of choice to run a scan before opening. If you find malware, it’s not the file you were looking for.

Go back to the site, and look for a plaintext “download” link.

Fakes Suck, But You Can Spot Them

Any system that exists will eventually be used to exploit people. It’s a sad fact of human nature, and the web seems particularly vulnerable to it. With a little knowledge, though, you can defend yourself.

These tips should help you spot most fake download buttons.

How do you spot fake download buttons? Leave tips below, because I’m sure your fellow readers will appreciate them.

Ad sizes reference by NEXO Design

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