Hashemian Blog
Web, Finance, Technology, Running

Google Lifeblood

by @ 12:19 am
Filed under: google,hacking,web

Like most people who have a Web site I check my site's ranking on Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) from time to time. It's striking how much of a Website's life depends on Google. That's particularly true with smaller sites whose lifeblood is the traffic Google sends their way. But even bigger sites would suffer severely if their pages suddenly lost ranking in Google. Sure there are other search engines like Yahoo and MSN, but enough about those.

And so when a couple of days ago I noticed that my site's traffic had a noticeable drop in traffic, the first place I looked for diagnosis was Google. Sure enough, my site's pages where either non-existent or had dropped considerably in ranking. I know that compared to other sites, my traffic is but a drop in a proverbial bucket, but even so the realization of lost ranking made me concerned. I can only imagine how those people, whose living is tied to their traffic, may feel when Google starts to snub their sites. the results could be devastating.

Had I violated any one of Google's quality guidelines? Had I engaged in any activity that might have blacklisted my site? I was stumped. I hadn't made any design changes to the site that I could recall. I even tested my site for unintended search engine spamming using a couple of different online tools. One claimed I had hidden text on my pages. They were light-colored timestamps on a colored background. Just for insurance I changed them to a darker color. It also caught what it regarded as keyword stuffing. The culprit turned out to be whitespace characters ( ) with missing trailing semi-colons. So at least I got to fix this error on my site, and then I just moved on.

Today, inexplicably my site's ranking in Google SERPs seems to be back where it used to be. Could this have been the result of those minor changes? I don't think so. Most likely, the drop was due to some temporary event in Google's algorithm.

What's alarming is that Google is not just influential, but it's vital to so many. Where can one go to if they are unfairly treated? Who will listen? This is not a paid service, there are no SLAs (Service Level Agreements), contracts, or even tenuous promises. Mine is just a hobby site. Being present in Google is great, but I'd still be doing this even if my site wasn't included. I don't think my attitude would be the same if I were making a living off my site.

I can appreciate that Google has the enormous task of separating the good sites from the bad. But with that much power and reach, it is inevitable that many innocent sites will be inadvertently punished. Consider how things would be if there were only one powerful and unregulated credit agency with two marginal ones, instead of the three with equal standings today.

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Homepage Hazards

by @ 5:30 pm
Filed under: hacking,web

Sites, specially news-related or educational, usually cram their homepages with links to various sections and freshly updated pages. In that regards those homepages are portals into the rest of their respective sites where the real content resides.

That's all fine and good until they display links from those sections that the site maintains little control over. Forums, for example, are one these notorious areas trolled by spammers and jokers. The problem is that by nature they are supposed to be democratic. Pre-moderated forums generally suffer from anemic posts and little lively action. On the flip side, unmoderated or post-moderated forums spur real-time discussions, but invite nuisance posts.

This is depicted in the image grab from the homepage of devx.com, a development site frequented by programmers and, in this instance, linking to a prankster's or a spammer's post in one of their forums. The offending post was removed at some point, but the orphaned link remained on the homepage until it was pushed out by newer links.

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Redirect Hacks and Phishing

by @ 11:27 pm
Filed under: hacking,web

A few days ago in a blog entry I touched upon how search engine gamers had been able to use trusted domains and the 302 redirect trick to fool search engines into giving them higher rankings. That window of opportunity is all but closed now, but scammers still use the redirect hack to aid them in their phishing expeditions. They are able to foist their tricks on their unsuspecting victims using two main avenues consisting of spam emails and spam posts.

Suppose you receive an email with the following embedded URL:

  • http://www.ygdte682hdfajh1a.com/offer.htm?url=http://example.com
  • Would you click on this email? Most likely not, and nor will many others. You just can't tell who that weird URL belongs to, so you would skip over it. Now consider the following URLs:

  • http://froogle.google.com/%66%72%6F%6F%67%6C%65%5F%75%72%6C?%71=%68%74%74%70%3A%2F%2F%31%39%32%2E%30%2E%33%34%2E%31%36%36
  • http://www.aol.com/%72%65%64%69%72%2E%61%64%70?%5F%75%72%6C=%68%74%74%70%3A%2F%2F%31%39%32%2E%30%2E%33%34%2E%31%36%36
  • http://cgi1.ebay.com/aw-cgi/ebayISAPI.dll?RedirectEnter&loc=http://us.ebayobjects.com/2c;47586106;12593038;l?%68%74%74%70%3A%2F%2F%31%39%32%2E%30%2E%33%34%2E%31%36%36
  • Notice how the URLs indicate domains from Google, AOL, and eBay. Some people may still be skeptical about clicking, but others may not be so paranoid. After all those domains emanate from highly trusted sources. The URLs have some encrypted data, but we are all accustomed to seeing long URLs on various sites, and might attribute that to strong security.

    This is no trick. Those pages are indeed legitimate pages from well-known sites. But they are specially crafted pages to redirect users to other destinations. They were most likely designed to be used by their respective sites themselves and for other legitimate uses from the outside. But in this case they were hijacked to gain users' confidence prompting them to dutifully click on them. For these samples, users are safely redirected to example.com, but they could have been redirected to a wicked phishing site instead.

    Phishers also post the same types of links on various online boards, article sites, or other user submission areas, and they can gain users' trust just the same. Why wouldn't these links be automatically filtered by email servers or web sites? For the same reason average users see no threat in them. Filters might block or distort links they do not recognize, but many may give these links a free pass, convinced that they are from highly trusted sites and are therefore innocuous.

    Some well-known sites have started to take defensive measures to foil these types of redirect tricks, but abuse-ready redirect pages still abound. So the next time you come across these types of links in a spam email or on a site, think twice before clicking on them. They may just be the bait-and-switch kind.

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    Redirect Hacks and SEO

    by @ 10:04 pm
    Filed under: hacking,web

    In web terms a redirect hack is an umbrella concept that refers to various strategies to redirect visitors from one web page to another. There are several legitimate reasons a site may use this technology. These are generally necessary conditions where, for example, a site has migrated to another, or a page needs to temporarily send its visitors to another location.

    Try http://www.cnnfn.com/ and notice how your browser is redirected to http://money.cnn.com/. When CNNfn shut down its doors it moved its operations to this new site, and used a redirect to take its faithful readers to its new abode. Same is true with Microsoft when it acquired Great Plains Software and renamed the business to Microsoft Dynamics. The URL http://www.greatplains.com/ now redirects to http://www.microsoft.com/dynamics/. These types of redirects are known as 301 or permanent redirects, referring to the code sent by a web server to a browser asking it to redirect to a new URL. The other type of redirect is known as 302 or temporary. It is used to announce a temporary relocation of a page or a site and results in the same type of redirection. The difference is mainly in how a browser or a search engine is supposed to treat the redirection.

    Since temporary redirects are supposed to be, well, temporary, visiting programs are supposed to treat the original URLs as valid, like any other legit web page. For example, per rules, a search engine should continue to keep the original URL in its index and give the referee the same weight and value as the original URL.

    Soon enough, unethical search engine optimization (SEO) guys discovered this rule (or loophole) and started gaming search engines by placing links on various sites that bounced off certain URLs from well-known web sites and redirected visitors to their own sites. When search engines encountered such links, they would give the referenced sites high rankings because the links were from trusted and well-regarded sites.

    Take a look at this sample URL (it still works as of this writing):
    http://www.aol.com/redir.adp?_url=http://www.example.com

    It appears that AOL has redirected one of its own pages to example.com. Most likely AOL uses this page for its own site, but as is, it can't stop others from using it too. In reality you can replace example.com with any page's URL and any search engine (or your browser) would be faithfully ushered there, courtesy of AOL servers. As a benefit, the search engine would bestow a high ranking on that final URL by proxy, because that page is believed to be somehow associated with AOL.

    A High ranking means more frequent appearances on or near the top of search engine results pages, which means that gamers can garner a lot of traffic on their sites for little work, and traffic translates to money. In simple cases visitors are greeted with pay-per-click or other types of ads, stock pump-and-dump schemes, or they might be scammed into buying stuff. In more insidious cases visitors might be tricked into installing spyware or malware on their computers to track their activities and annoy them with incessant popup ads, or worse, ship their private information to the bad guys waiting to wipe clean bank and trading accounts.

    Fortunately major search engines have now optimized their systems to forestall redirect hacks and most gamers don't see much (if any) gain from employing this tactic. But don't count out redirect hacks just yet. A more nefarious redirect usage involving phishing is alive and well, and still thriving. More on that in the next blog entry.

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    eBay Phishing

    by @ 10:24 pm
    Filed under: hacking,web

    firefox forgery phishingPhishing is not a new phenomenon. Just like anyone else I've been getting them for years now. They are so obvious that I just report them as spam without opening them and move on. I wonder when these guys will get tired of the usual impersonations and get on with more exciting trickeries. At least that'll keep the cat and mouse game more interesting. I'm tired of the garden variety names consisting of WaMu, Citibank, Chase, Amazon, and eBay.

    So today, just for fun, I decided to open up a couple of these emails and check them out. Both were purportedly from eBay bidders sending me messages about some product I hadn't listed on eBay, the last time I listed an item on eBay was some 4 years ago. Both were obviously sent from the same source.

    ebay phishingInspecting the message sources I noticed that the links were actually crafted using the redirection facilities of a couple of big online names. One was via an AOL page, and the other via a Froogle page. Clicking on either whisked my browser to a page that looked uncannily like an eBay login page.

    I must admit that I was impressed. The login page was absolutely identical to that of eBay's. The dead giveaway was the URL line displayed in the browser, but I could see how someone would just overlook that oddity. The host portion was actually an IP address (instead of signin.ebay.com), and even a non-standard port number was specified; 82 instead of the missing port which would default to 80. The rest of the URL however bore a total resemblance to what you would normally see for the eBay login page.

    Switching from my IE 6 to Firefox 2, I was happy to see that the site had already been reported as a phishing site and Firefox immediately popped up a forgery warning, alerting me to the site's dubious status. Then I tried IE 7 and I was happy again to see that the site raised a red flag with that browser as well. Obviously the anti-phishing measures in those browsers were working, at least in this case.

    I then proceeded to enter some bogus login credentials and I got what I expected. Upon submitting the information, the page displayed a pathetic apology message about being sorry for the inconvenience and even tried to relieve any possible alarm by exclaiming: "Rest assured that your private data is in a safe place."

    No doubt my fake data was safely and warmly embraced by the phisher and no sooner had I submitted the page than it was being tested on the real eBay login screen by the miscreant. Of course the average absent-minded user would just grunt at the error message and then click on a now-legit link to go to the real eBay login page, mindless of the fact that his credentials had just "safely" fallen into the wrong hands.

    That user wouldn't even notice the suspicious signs in the error message itself, like "apparently" spelled with one "p" or the misuse of the word "costumers" instead of "customers". With all their technological prowess and creativity, don't these guys have a basic spellchecker to at least feign a professional apearance, er, appearance?

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