As more small businesses flock to the Web, security becomes a bigger issue. It's important to understand what motivates hackers, how to avoid becoming a victim, and how to recover if you’ve been hacked.
Over the recent holidays I woke up one morning to an unwelcome present: one of my websites had been hacked!
Being the holidays, it took longer than normal to get help to fix the rest of the site. Finally, after two days, we were able to get everything fully functioning again. It was costly, both in terms of time, money and worry. But I breathed a sigh of relief.
Little did I know that the problems were not over … yet.
What the hackers wanted
Throughout it all, I kept wondering, 'Why would somebody hack my site?' It is purely a content site. The site databases contain no customer information, no credit card numbers, no confidential data of any kind. There is absolutely nothing of value for a hacker -- or so I thought.
At first I chalked up the incident to somebody's idea of a sick joke … mere vandalism.
Over the ensuing four days, I was soon to discover what the hackers had really done to my site. Deleted files and a messed-up design were just the tip of the iceberg.
Search engine boosting is the goal
The real purpose of the hacking was to boost search engine rankings.
The latest trend is that hackers hijack legitimate sites to use them to generate links to other sites to increase those sites' rankings. Even Al Gore's climate blog was victimized by hackers to boost search engine links.
In my case, a script had been loaded on the shared server that my site resided on, generating hundreds of hidden pages on my domain. These were pages that I had absolutely no idea were there until, looking at my Technorati.com account, I saw thousands of new links suddenly come in overnight from spam sites pointing to those pages on my domain. The anchor text in the links used words such as 'oxycontin' and 'cute ringtones' and similar junk that I knew could not be legitimate links to my site. The fake pages on my site were in turn automatically redirected to pharma, ringtone, and adult sites to boost those sites' link weight.
In addition, we found dozens of hidden links in the main pages of my site to ringtone, pharma, and adult websites. You could not see these links on my site's pages using a standard browser. Also, we found some rogue PHP code designed to generate even more hidden links if the first group were removed.
They also managed to insert bogus links in my blogroll and elsewhere in the site -- this time in plain view. Presumably links were scattered here and there among legitimate content with the hope they would be overlooked.
What it means for small business websites
You've heard of defensive driving? Well, welcome to the world of defensive Web publishing.
If you thought your site was safe just because you had nothing of value in it except some content, think again. Even small business websites and personal blogs are not immune from this kind of attack. Your site indeed does have value to hackers -- as a link-generating drone.
How to protect your website
The toughest part with hacking attacks is that you may not even be aware that your site was compromised. Or it may take a while (in my case, four days) to figure out the full extent of the damage.
Remember that you're not as helpless as you may feel. Taking these steps can help protect your site or blog:
Be a little paranoid – it's OK. It just may save you from a hacking or help you recover more quickly. For more information:
Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.