Yep, you read the title correctly. Yahoo! can become your default search engine without your knowledge. After finishing my recent piece on fighting Incredibar, I innocently looked at all the browsers on my computers and was surprised to find that the default search engine for Firefox had been changed from Google to Yahoo! on one of them!

When I say default search engine, I do not mean the contents of the search window in the upper right bar. That is whatever you make it when you click the down arrow and select an engine. In my case, it was still Google. To see what I mean by Yahoo! taking over my browser, open Firefox and enter “about:home” where you would normally put a URL address, and enter. This opens a useful site with what looks like a standard Firefox Google search window in the middle. Enter a search term and note if the results page shows a change of default engine. If it is still a Google page, you are good. Otherwise…

In my case, the results page was definitely from Yahoo!, not Google. I had never deliberately changed default engines. What happened? Since the affected computer is one that I used in preparation for a class on “Downloading Nifty Things from the Internet Safely” (yeah, I get the irony), very likely when I was downloading something, there was a magic check box that either needed to be checked or unchecked to keep my default search engine. Failure to be observant meant that in addition to the stuff I wanted, the providers also gave me something extra. At least Yahoo! is not a pain like Incredibar or Babylon. Still, it is not something I wanted, so regardless of Yahoo!’s value as a search engine, I decided it must go.

Yahoo! Toolbar Removal for Firefox

There might be several ways to reset the default search engine in Firefox, but I could not find any simple ones. The method I used was to type about:config in the browser’s URL field. This takes some fortitude. See the image of the opening page. Go ahead and click on the promise to be careful. Then in the window that opens, search for mstone. This will filter the bewildering array in entries down to the one shown in the image above. As you would in regedit or similar applications, right-click on the entry and open a drop-down choice window. At that point, you can either simply reset the engine to the original default, or you can enter whatever you wish.

So the nuisance is removed, but that leaves the question of why there was a nuisance at all. Yahoo! is certainly a reputable organization; one would not think it needs to resort to stealth installations to get customers. I also doubt very much that Yahoo! participates in re-direction and other nefarious activities. But the fact remains that because I was in a hurry preparing for a class, I neglected to note an option box and was given something I did not ask for. I have seen similar opt out boxes for McAfee (in association with Adobe downloads) and others. This must be a profitable method of marketing — otherwise it would die out — but I do not like it. The technique has an air of desperation about it that turns me off. I would rather wade through various download buttons that could lead me in the wrong direction (another common ploy) than have the option coyly placed in the download windows.

What is your experience? Have you been accidentally saddled with unwanted system changes in this manner? If so, what did you do? Please share.