Have you ever clicked on an online link that appeared relevant to your search, only to land on a completely unrelated website or, worse yet, encounter malware threats? If so, you might have fallen prey to an SEO attack, short for search engine optimization attack. These cyberattacks employ various tactics to manipulate search results, luring unsuspecting users to malicious websites.

SEO attacks aren't merely annoying; they're perilous. They can expose your device to dangerous malware such as ransomware, spyware or Trojans, which can compromise your device, pilfer personal data or extort money from you. Furthermore, they jeopardize network security, data privacy and overall business productivity. As such, it's crucial to understand SEO attacks and how to thwart them.

man looking at a laptop

How do SEO attacks work?

SEO attacks exploit the algorithms and ranking criteria that search engines employ to decide the relevance and trustworthiness of websites for specific queries. Cybercriminals employ various tactics to elevate the visibility and popularity of their malicious websites, including:

  • Keyword stuffing: This involves adding or repeating popular or trending keywords in website content or metadata, even if they are irrelevant. For instance, a malicious site might use keywords related to TeamViewer, a remote desktop software, to attract users seeking support or updates.
  • Cloaking: This tactic displays different content to search engines and users. For example, a malicious site might appear legitimate to search engines, resembling a news site or blog, but redirect users to phishing or malware-infested sites.
  • Search ranking manipulation: This technique involves influencing a website's search result ranking through methods such as purchasing or trading links or posting fake reviews or comments. Cybercriminals may employ this strategy to manipulate the visibility of their malicious websites in search results.
  • Using Private Link Networks (PLNs): This entails creating or leveraging networks of websites owned or controlled by cybercriminals. These networks link to each other to enhance authority and relevance. For example, a malicious website might use PLNs to rank high for keywords related to COVID-19 vaccines or WordPress.

Cybercriminals apply these tactics to popular keywords and websites that users are likely to search for or visit. Additionally, they employ social engineering tactics to entice users, offering free downloads, discounts, prizes or urgent alerts to prompt clicks on their links.

Avoid sponsored links

In addition to safeguarding against SEO attacks, it's essential to be vigilant when dealing with sponsored links that often appear at the top of search results. Sponsored links, while they can be legitimate, can also pose risks.

Here’s how you can protect yourself:

  • Verify the legitimacy: Before clicking on any sponsored link, take a moment to verify its legitimacy. Pay attention to the website's URL and ensure that it matches the expected domain. Avoid sponsored links with suspicious or misspelled URLs. 
  • Check for relevance: Sponsored links are often marked as advertisements or sponsored content. Ensure that the content aligns with your search query. If a sponsored link promises something that seems too good to be true or unrelated to your search, exercise caution.
  • Use ad blockers: Consider using ad blockers or browser extensions that filter out unwanted advertisements, including some sponsored links. However, be aware that some websites may request you to disable your ad blocker to access their content. 
  • Be wary of pop-ups: Sponsored links may lead to websites with intrusive pop-up ads. Be cautious when encountering pop-ups, and avoid clicking on them, as they could potentially lead to malicious sites.

SEO attacks are a significant threat for all search engine users. By following these tips, you can shield yourself from SEO attacks, ensuring the safety of your device and personal information.