Print

Sales & Marketing >> Browse Articles >> Online Business

Sales & Marketing >> Browse Articles >> Online Business >> Search Engine Optimization

+4

How Fake Websites Trick Search Engines for High Rankings

How Fake Websites Trick Search Engines for High Rankings

Jordan Robertson

SAN FRANCISCO – Even search engines can get suckered by Internet scams.

With a little sleight of hand, con artists can dupe them into giving top billing to fraudulent Web sites that prey on consumers, making unwitting accomplices of companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Online charlatans typically try to lure people into giving away their personal or financial information by posing as legitimate companies in “phishing” e-mails or through messages in forums such as Twitter and Facebook. But a new study by security researcher Jim Stickley shows how search engines also can turn into funnels for shady schemes.

Stickley created a Web site purporting to belong to the Credit Union of Southern California, a real business that agreed to be part of the experiment. He then used his knowledge of how search engines rank Web sites to achieve something that shocked him: His phony site got a No. 2 ranking on Yahoo Inc.‘s search engine and landed in the top slot on Microsoft Corp.’s Bing, ahead of even the credit union’s real site.

Google Inc., which handles two-thirds of U.S. search requests, didn’t fall into Stickley’s trap. His fake site never got higher than Google’s sixth page of results, too far back to be seen by most people. The company also places a warning alongside sites that its system suspects might be malicious.

But even Google acknowledges it isn’t foolproof.

Some recession-driven scams have been slipping into Google’s search results, although that number is “very, very few,” said Jason Morrison, a Google search quality engineer.

On one kind of fraudulent site, phony articles claim that participants can make thousands of dollars a month simply for posting links to certain Web sites. Often, the victims are asked to pay money for startup materials that never arrive, or bank account information is requested for payment purposes.

“As soon as we notice anything like it, we’ll adapt, but it’s kind of like a game of Whac-A-Mole,” he said. “We can’t remove every single scam from the Internet. It’s just impossible.”

In fact, Google said Tuesday it is suing a company for promising “work at home” programs through Web sites that look legitimate and pretend to be affiliated with Google.

Stickley’s site wasn’t malicious, but easily could have been. In the year and a half it was up, the 10,568 visitors were automatically redirected to the real credit union, and likely never knew they had passed through a fraudulent site.

“When you’re using search engines, you’ve got to be diligent,” said Stickley, co-founder of TraceSecurity Inc. “You can’t trust that just because it’s No. 2 or No. 1 that it really is. A phone book is actually probably a safer bet than a search engine.”

A Yahoo spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment. Microsoft said in a statement that Stickley’s experiment showed that search results can be cluttered with junk, but the company insists Bing “is equipped to address” the problem. Stickley’s link no longer appears in Bing.

To fool people into thinking they were following the right link, Stickley established a domain (creditunionofsc.org) that sounded plausible. (The credit union’s real site is cusocal.org.) After that, Stickley’s site wasn’t designed with humans in mind; it was programmed to make the search engines believe they were scanning a legitimate site. Stickley said he pulled it off by having link after link inside the site to create the appearance of “depth,” even though those links only led to the same picture of the credit union’s front page.