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SEO Poisoning Part 1: Understanding SEO Poisoning and Its Impact

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Threat Research Team
29/02/24
5 Minute read
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    Search engine optimisation (SEO) is crucial marketing tool for driving organic traffic to websites. It works on a simple premise that users trust top search results are the most relevant to their needs. In general, we will feel much more confident digesting content or buying products or services from top search engine results.

    Why good SEO matters

    Marketers work hard to obtain high rankings for their website and pages, because according to Forbes, higher rankings result in better click-through rates. “The average click-through rate for the number one spot is 27%, compared to 2.4% for the tenth ranked result”.

    It’s not just about where you rank: 45.1% of all clicks were organic, meaning users trust organic search engine results far more than other sources, like paid advertisements.

    While most SEO practices aim to provide value to users, some unethical tactics known as “SEO poisoning” focus solely on manipulating rankings at the expense of businesses and their users.

    Across this two-part series, we’ll cover everything companies need to know about SEO poisoning in 2024: from current tactics, to how bots are being used to expand the scope of SEO attacks, to prudent steps companies can take to protect organic traffic:

    Part 1: Understanding SEO Poisoning and Its Impact

    • What SEO poisoning is and how it works to unfairly divert search traffic.
    • An overview of common SEO poisoning tactics.
    • The damages SEO poisoning can inflict on businesses and users.

    Part 2: How Bots Fuel SEO Poisoning Attacks

    • How bots and automation expand the scope and reach of SEO poisoning attacks.
    • Some best practices for detecting potential poisoning campaigns.
    • Steps to protect your brand against automated threats.

    What is SEO Poisoning?

    SEO poisoning is the deliberate manipulation of web pages, content, links, and other signals to promote those pages in search results over the legitimate content. The pages are optimised specifically to target and rank for high-value keywords and searches to siphon off traffic from others competing for the same terms.

    Search engines like Google and Bing work extremely hard to reduce the impact of SEO poisoning, but as algorithms evolve, so do ranking theft tactics. When done effectively, SEO poisoning enables pages with no real value, or malicious intent, to push aside legitimate content from organic rankings.

    Common SEO Poisoning Tactics

    There has been a notable increase in SEO poisoning attacks in the wild, targeting brands like Blender and spreading malware like Gootloader. While search engines are constantly enhancing protections, those intent on manipulating results will often find creative workarounds. Like any evolving threat, as defences evolve, so do the tactics of the perpetrators.

    These tactics are designed to game search engine algorithms and supersede legitimate results for high-value search queries. Some of the most prevalent techniques used in SEO poisoning campaigns include:

    Keyword Stuffing

    Keyword stuffing involves cramming a page with repetitive instances of a target keyword or phrase. Even if the content is low-quality or completely irrelevant, the sheer keyword volume can trick the search engine algorithm into boosting its rank for searches of that term.

    Scraped and Cloned Content

    Large volumes of content are automatically stolen by scraper bots or cloned from other sites and reposted to fake sites. This content may be further “stuffed” with additional keywords to further boost its ranking.

    Cloaking

    With cloaking, the page displayed to the search engine crawler bots analysing the site differs from what human visitors see. The “cloaked” version also uses keyword stuffing and other optimisations tailored specifically to improve rankings.

    Fake Interactions

    Adversaries seek to manipulate various signals search engines use to assess page quality, such as likes, shares, comments, and click-through rates. Adversaries may also leave fake comments on forum posts with anchored text links to drive traffic to their poisoned site.

    A malicious type of backlinking, adversaries manipulate the link graph used by search engines by establishing networks of sites linking to each other, while also linking to the pages intended for poisoning.

    Doorway Pages

    Adversaries may create thin “doorway” pages targeting specific keywords to further divert search traffic and manipulate rankings.

    Typo-Squatted Domains

    Frequently, attackers exploit typographical errors and opt for domains that closely resemble the target domain to deceive users.

    Impacts of SEO Poisoning on Businesses

    As businesses depend on organic search visibility to drive website traffic, leads, and ultimately revenue, SEO poisoning poses a major risk with both short and long-term consequences.

    Lost Organic Traffic

    Poisoned pages unfairly outranking the real site direct visitors to competitors. Even a single high-value keyword loss can equate to hundreds or thousands of missed potential customers each month.

    Reputational Damage

    When users click on low-quality doorway pages, completely irrelevant content, or even malicious search results, it reflects poorly on that company. This can erode trust over time as customers unwittingly encounter falsified results.

    Lower Lead Generation

    If these SEO poisoned pages can push scraped content and obtain a higher search ranking than the real site, prospective customers may click on the artificial results first. Once users arrive at fake sites, they may never convert into leads for the original business, leading to higher bounce back rates.

    Skewed Analytics

    As bots scrape website content to clone it elsewhere, key performance indicators and business intelligence reflect this manipulated reality of fake engagements instead of true user intent, skewing analytics used to make important business decisions.

    Costly Cleanup

    For brands, fixing poisoning damage by publishing new content, removing backlinks, and undoing unfair ranking penalties requires extensive workload, time, and resources.

    Dilution of Domain Authority

    Over time, the large amount of re-spun scraped content, fake interaction, and other manipulations conducted through SEO poisoning can undermine the original domain in search algorithms. This results in diluting their ability to rank across keywords.

    Impacts of SEO Poisoning on Customers

    Not only do businesses suffer damages at the hands of SEO poisoning but a site’s users can also become collateral damage. At best, customers land on low quality scraped content, but at worst, they land on malicious sites. In doing so, they risk serious consequences:

    Malware Distribution

    In some cases, SEO poisoning may lead users to websites that host malicious code, such as malware. This can result in data theft, financial loss and security breaches for customers whose devices become infected.

    Identity Theft

    SEO poisoning can also be used as a means of stealing personal information such as login credentials, social security numbers and credit card numbers. This can facilitate financial fraud, causing significant distress and harm on affected users.

    Financial Losses

    In cases where customers fall victim to fraudulent schemes or scams facilitated through poisoned search results, they may suffer financial losses.

    A customer experiencing such impacts further erodes the reputational damage, loss of trust and confidence they might have towards the legitimate brand.

    Bots Enable SEO Poisoning at Scale

    SEO poisoning and rank theft poses a major threat to businesses that rely on organic search visibility for traffic. The tactics we’ve covered allow actors to divert traffic and counterfeit relevance away from legitimate websites. The damages this activity can cost from reputation harm, lost leads, and sales are very real.

    Unfortunately, these threats are only rising with the growth in automation. Bots enable SEO ranking theft at a scale not possible manually. In part two, we’ll delve deeper into how bots leveraging automation can further SEO poisoning and ranking theft campaigns, making effective bot protection a must-have for brands.

    We’ll outline methods and best practise to help protect your brands interests regarding this growing threat. As search engines continue to escalate their algorithmic arms race with SEO manipulators, companies have their own part to play.

    In the meantime, uncover how bots are attacking your websites, apps, and APIs. Book a demo of Netacea.

    Block Bots Effortlessly with Netacea

    Book a demo and see how Netacea autonomously prevents sophisticated automated attacks.
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