SEO poisoning is a method that threat actors employ in an attempt to entice users into visiting malicious websites. In this blog post, we will take a close look at SEO poisoning and discuss methods that can be used to detect and prevent this malicious activity.
What is SEO Poisoning?
SEO poisoning is the practice of creating malicious websites which masquerade as legitimate sites that rate highly with search engines. They use popular search terms or try to capitalize on search trends that will drive traffic to their sites. When an unsuspecting user accesses the site, their computer or mobile devices are infected with malware.
The malware can go on to infect a company’s IT environment. SEO poisoning also may be conducted to steal credit card information by fooling users into making a phantom purchase. Users can be deceived into providing all kinds of sensitive information with a well-designed fraudulent website.
An SEO poisoning attack does not only victimize the owner of the compromised website. The ultimate target of the threat actors may be the site’s visitors. The endpoints used to visit the site are then infected with malware, which can be spread to other IT environments with which they interact.
How Threat Actors Conduct SEO Poisoning
Threat actors use multiple techniques as they try to increase the search engine rankings of their malicious websites. The following tactics are commonly used for boosting search engine ratings.
- Keyword stuffing - This tactic involves stuffing a web page with keywords to increase its search engine ranking. The keywords can include hidden text, making it harder for a user to discern the stuffing. Higher ranking websites typically attract more attention and provide threat actors with a greater chance of successfully infecting visitors with malware.
- Website cloaking - This technique deceives search engines into believing the website contains content that is different from what is displayed for visitors. The resulting website ranking is based on erroneous conclusions drawn by the search engine. Malicious links are often embedded throughout the site in an attempt to get clicks from visitors.
- Boosting search engine ratings - Threat actors use multiple techniques to artificially boost the ranking of their malicious websites. They employ bots or humans to repetitively click on the site, raising its ranking with search engines. The goal is to rank as highly as possible to attract users looking for the most popular results of a web search.
Examples of SEO Poisoning in Action
Let’s look at two illustrative examples of an SEO poisoning campaign. These examples demonstrate the methods and dangers of SEO poisoning.
Blender 3D is open source 3D graphics design software. The organization’s website was the victim of SEO poisoning in January 2023. Visitors to the site were presented with what appeared to be legitimate links to download the software. Clicking on the links resulted in visitors downloading malware from a DropBox URL disguised as a blender.zip file.
Targeting WordPress sites
In this exploit, threat actors are targeting WordPress sites and compromising them to redirect visitors to fake Q&A forums. Hackers are modifying WordPress PHP files to perform the redirection. It is believed that the goal of the entities behind the attack is to prime the sites for future use as phishing locations, malware droppers or to conduct advertising fraud.
Detecting SEO Poisoning
Detecting SEO poisoning requires monitoring for Indicators of Compromise (IoC) that suggest suspicious website behavior. The following IoCs are most commonly used to detect SEO poisoning.
- Unexpected changes in website traffic. A sudden increase in visitors may indicate an attempt to artificially boost search engine rankings.
- Strange changes in search engine rankings are also an indicator of boosting. Sites that suddenly rise in the rankings for no apparent reason may be compromised.
- Unknown or suspicious website content is cause for alarm. Website owners should immediately take corrective action to eliminate the content from the site.
- Businesses should monitor the registration of domains with names similar to theirs that may be used to lure unsuspecting visitors.
Effectively Preventing SEO Poisoning
Preventing SEO poisoning requires a multi-faceted approach. A combination of technological solutions and human activities is necessary to successfully prevent SEO poisoning of an organization’s websites.
- User awareness training is an important factor for any cybersecurity initiative. In this case, users should be trained on the tactics used in SEO poisoning so they are better able to determine when an attack is underway.
- Implementing strong cybersecurity defenses is required to address the repercussions of SEO poisoning. This includes implementing an extended detection and response (XDR) solution to identify the aberrant behavior triggered by malware or malicious intrusion that has been introduced into the IT environment through SEO poisoning. Detecting the presence of this malware helps contain collateral damage to the IT infrastructure.
- Acting promptly when suspicious websites are identified is key to limiting the potential damage they can cause. Companies need to work with hosting providers and domain registrars to take down the fake sites. These sites must be taken down as soon as possible to protect unsuspecting visitors from malware infection.
How XDR Can Minimize the Effects of SEO Poisoning
XDR offers endpoint protection by monitoring telemetry and hunting for undetected and as yet unknown threats. The ultimate goal of SEO poisoning is to plant malware on the devices that access a malicious website. While XDR does not directly protect an environment from SEO poisoning, it can identify suspicious behavior that may indicate the presence of malware distributed through this type of attack. These issues can then be investigated and addressed by security personnel to limit damage to the environment.
XDR platforms identify suspicious activity by observing and analyzing multiple factors related to the specific IT environment it is protecting.
- XDR can detect the subtle signals generated as a malicious entity moves laterally through the environment in search of valuable data or attractive targets to attack.
- XDR will identify anomalous behavior based on baseline observations that may indicate the presence of a threat actor in the environment.
- XDR consolidates and prioritizes threat information and telemetry from all sources to provide a complete picture of the threat landscape. This feature reduces the strain on cybersecurity personnel by providing them with the information they need to address the most severe threats promptly.
Samurai XDR is a cloud-based solution designed to supplement the cybersecurity defenses of organizations of all sizes. The platform is especially beneficial for small and medium businesses (SMBs) that may have limited staff to devote to cybersecurity. It incorporates advanced threat intelligence, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to help identify unknown threats before they can cause damage to an IT infrastructure.
Talk to Samurai today and see how its XDR solution can help your company avoid the pitfalls of SEO poisoning and the many other tactics of sophisticated threat actors.
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