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How to Stop and Fix an SEO Spambot Attack

Spambot attacks are on the rise, with 25.6% of all internet traffic from a malicious bot, and increasingly sophisticated methods are being used to circumvent common security measures.

Businesses and small websites need to prevent SEO spambots from derailing their optimization efforts and causing big drops in traffic and revenue.

If you have been the victim of an attack, here you will find the steps to recover and restore your ranking.

You will also learn about smart prevention and high-level surveillance systems.

What is an SEO Spambot attack?

SEO spambots are a lot like the friendly Googlebots you want to crawl on your site. However, instead of indexing your content, these bots will use vulnerabilities to infiltrate your website.

Why?

They engage in spamdexing.

Essentially, these spam attacks will use your site to attempt to rank content that cannot otherwise be ranked. Bots earn hackers a ton of revenue, and their spamming tactics lead to a significant drop in your site’s SEO and revenue.

Additionally, Black Hat SEO techniques are used to mask the attack.

Here are just a few of the many nefarious things a spambot can do:

  • Content spam.
  • Content recovery.
  • Credential sniffing.
  • SQL injections to update portions of a site.
  • Inserting links.
  • Redirect generation.
  • Google Analytics referral spam.
  • User-generated content (UGC) spam.

Often the main purpose of spam is to insert links into your website. The hidden links will help to increase the hacker’s website and revenue while damaging your site.

We have also seen redirects generated to create fake URLs that redirect to the hacker’s website.

In each of these cases, the spambot is trying to take advantage of the site for its own gain.

Sometimes display ads are inserted into a site using SQL injection, but most of these infiltrations involve links or redirects to a website that in some way generates revenue.

Recognizing an SEO Spambot Attack

Spambots work diligently to circumvent your usual detection methods. Links are inserted or pages are created with the utmost effort to hide them from the site owner.

Sometimes you will find that your CMS has fundamental vulnerabilities and you are just another victim of an attack.

However, some red flags indicating that something is wrong are:

  • A drop in traffic.
  • Random site pages.
  • SGC warnings.
  • Google search disclaimers.

More established businesses and websites will have several forms of detection, such as:

  • Firewall.
  • Logging systems.
  • Monitoring systems.

If you use WordPress, there are fundamental vulnerabilities that hackers will spot and use to their advantage.

It is possible to diagnose attacks on your site using plugins such as MalCare or Wordfence, both of which add multiple layers of security to your site.

Additionally, you can use Cloudflare to take preventative action to stop bots in their tracks using the bot management system.

Step-by-step guide to remedying a spambot attack

Responding to a spambot attack requires a few steps that will help you stop the attack and restore your site.

1. Prevent bots from doing extra damage

In the next two steps, your site will remain vulnerable until you determine how the spambot gained access to your site and caused its damage. Therefore, before scanning your site, you will want to implement bot protection.

Cloudflare’s bot management system uses AI and machine learning to stop bad bots.

The tool will use a three-pronged approach to provide real-time protection:

  • Behavioral analysis will be used to detect possible traffic anomalies.
  • machine learning will use billions of data points to accurately detect bots.
  • Fingerprints will also be used to classify bots that have been previously detected.

Rich analytics and logs will add to your site’s security and give you time to clean up your site.

2. Run a site scan to determine which pages are affected

Now that your site has a high level of protection to stop further spambot attacks, it’s time to run a scan on your site. We use the word “scanner” very broadly because you can:

  • Run an analytics report to see the pages where site traffic has dropped drastically.
  • Run a scan using Screaming Frog or something similar.
  • FTP to your site and browse folders for manually created pages.

You can even manually go through every page on your site, looking at the source code of pages that may have hidden links.

Screaming Frog will also help you find hidden redirects.

If you have logs available, be sure to analyze them to see where the traffic is coming from and find any pages on the site that may have been created by the bot.

A lot of time will be spent determining what needs cleaning at the site.

3. Find out how the site was infiltrated

Secure sites are not infiltrated. Most spambot attacks look for existing vulnerabilities that you haven’t patched. Sites may have been infiltrated due to:

  • Bad plugins.
  • Obsolete software.
  • SQL injections.
  • Easy to guess FTP/Admin passwords.

Your first step is to ensure that all software and plugins on your site are updated. Old scripts need to be updated, and if you notice any scripts you didn’t create, delete them.

Spammers can leave a script on your server to regain access to your site in the future.

It is recommended that you work with someone to go through your logs and find out how the attack unfolded.

You want to fix these vulnerabilities before going through the next steps. Cloudflare should also add an extra layer of protection.

4. Clean first pages first

Cleaning your site depends on the type of attack that occurred. If your site contains user-generated page spam or bulk page creation, you’ll have to go through the daunting task of determining which pages are searched and which aren’t.

You will then need to delete these spam-generated pages.

However, you also want to do a few essential things for non-spam pages:

  • Analyze your analytics.
  • Mark pages that are heavily impacted.
  • Start by cleaning up your first few pages.

Your revenue-generating pages need to be worked on first to help restore their rankings.

When we say “work”, you’ll need to dig deep into all of these pages to find:

Typically, you’ll have to manually clean up and revise each page.

Even if a link were just inserted into the footer of your site, you would still want to check all of your pages to make sure that nothing else is missing on each page.

Once you’re sure all spam has been removed, it’s a waiting game to see what happens to your rankings.

5. Monitor the site

Monitoring your site should be part of your daily operations. You will want to monitor your site in several ways:

  • Monitor your rankings and analytics for any changes.
  • Monitor site logs for suspicious activity.

You need to identify how the attack happened and fix the entry point. However, there are times when the spambot will put a backdoor into your server, go back there, and mess everything up – again.

It is essential that you continue to monitor your site for any suspicious activity so that you can remedy problems quickly.

6. Optional: Restore from Backup

If you are very lucky and catch the attack early, you might be able to restore your site to its previous state using a snapshot. However, if you have new customer orders or data inserted into databases that have been impacted, this method will not work.

Unfortunately, your backups will still contain the original vulnerabilities that led to a successful attack.

At this point, your best bet is to restore the site using Cloudflare protection and then fix the main vulnerabilities in the attack.

If an attack goes unnoticed for weeks or months, your backups may already be compromised, rendering this solution unusable.

Final Thoughts

Spambots are dangerous because they can go undetected for long periods of time. If a bot comes by and inserts links or content into existing pages, it can quickly ruin your business reputation and derail your SEO efforts.

In addition, these link inserts are often one or two words that are related to the site, and the text is made to not look like a link.

Identifying an attack of this nature can be extremely difficult.

We’ve also seen spambots spawn thousands of pages on a site, using physical files, so new posts never show up in a CMS dashboard.

Eliminating spam at this level took two full months, resulting in significant damage to the client’s website.

Stopping an SEO spambot attack requires attention to detail and intensive monitoring. Cloudflare is a good option with multiple layers of firewalls, logging, and monitoring systems to thwart spambot attacks.

You’ll also want to consider user controls and access and work on other ways to harden your website’s server.

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Feature image: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock