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Malicious SEO Campaign Uses SQL Injection to Confuse Page Rankings

A sophisticated and wide-ranging search engine optimization (SEO) campaign that uses SQL injections to attack targeted websites is making the rounds.

According to Akamai Technologies’ Threat Research Division, affected websites will distribute hidden HTML links that confuse search engine bots and erroneously impact page rankings.

Over the course of a two week period in Q3 2015, Akamai analyzed data gathered from the Akamai Intelligent Platform and turned up evidence of mass defacement. When searching the internet for the HTML links that were used as part of the campaign, Threat Research identified hundreds of web applications containing these malicious links. In all, it observed attacks on more than 3,800 websites and 348 unique IP addresses.

Akamai also found that the attacks manipulated search engine results. When searching for a combination of common words such as “cheat” and “story,” the “cheating stories” application appeared on the first page of results across leading search engines.

“Search engines use specific algorithms to determine page rankings and indexing for sites on the web, and the number and reputation of links that redirect to the web application influence these rankings,” Akamai explained in its report. “The SEO attackers created a chain of external links that direct to stories of cheating and infidelity on the web to mimic normal web content and impact search engine algorithms.”

And an impact it did indeed have: Akamai looked at Alexa analytics and the ranking of the “cheating stories” application dramatically increased during the three month span of the campaign.

“The ability to manipulate page rankings is an enticing proposition and business for attackers,” said Stuart Scholly, senior vice president and general manager of the Security Business Unit at Akamai. “If successful, attacks can impact revenue and, most importantly, the reputation of many organizations and companies using the Internet.”

As far as mitigation, attacks in the campaign have demonstrated a unique understanding of search engine operations, and accordingly, Akamai recommends that web application developers implement proper input validation checks for all user-supplied data that will be used within a back-end database query. Also, they should only use prepared statements with parameterized queries when constructing SQL queries based on user-supplied data.

Web masters should implement a web application firewall (WAF) that is configured in a blocking mode for SQL Injection attacks, and consider profiling and monitoring the HTML response body format to help identify if there are significant changes such as an increase in the number of web links.

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