Are SEO poisoning warnings warranted for Google Instant?


ANALYSIS When tech giants launch impressive new products, they will often come under the scrutiny of security professionals.

Thus it should come as no surprise a security researcher has warned the new Google Instant search function could help improve hackers SEO campaigns.

Blackhat SEO threats use illicit methods to place malicious sites higher up on search rankings, and PandaLabs' Sean-Paul Correll has said Google Instant could help improve such methods.

"We know for a fact that most Blackhat SEO campaigns automatically query Google's trending topic results and now it seems that Google Instant will be suggesting those trending phrases (verbatim), potentially putting millions of victims directly in cyber criminals' cross hairs," Correll claimed.

The researcher tried a search for "antivirus" and found Antivir Solution Pro, a notorious rogueware infection, was one of the suggested search terms.

Of course, the previous version of Google search already suggested what was popular among web users when information was entered, similar to what Instant does. Therefore, one could query whether there is actually much difference between the new and older versions in terms of assisting malicious website creators.

In response to the concerns, a Google spokesperson simply told IT PRO the change did not impact the ranking of search results.

"As with all changes to search, there will always be people who work to optimise their pages to fit the Google experience. There are no ranking changes with this enhancement and as always we continue to focus on showing user high-quality, relevant queries and search results," the spokesperson added.

There was no specific mention of SEO poisoning from Google.

A mini comparison

Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, told IT PRO he had tried out search on Google and Bing to compare which was better for returning fewer poisoned sites.

While Bing had fewer malicious results, Corrons was quick to point out cyber criminals will be more drawn to Google, simply because it is the most popular search engine.

"One thing for certain is that criminals are not focusing that much on Bing when compared to Google," Corrons said.

He also pointed to the quality and experience of security researchers at Microsoft.

"That helps a lot and is helping Bing be cleaner compared to Google," Corrons added.

"Google should try to [improve] as much as possible in avoiding this kind of stuff."

Conclusion... kind of

While the quicker results may aid Black Hat SEO attacks to some extent, in that results, including malicious ones, will be immediately accessible, it is hard to see how Google Instant places more power in the hands of cyber criminals.

Given that suggestions based on trending was already a feature in the previous version of Google and the search results are the same, hackers should not expect to get much more help with Instant than before.

Nevertheless, as Corrons suggested, the fight against this kind of attack should be something at the top of any search engine's priorities.

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.