The merciless malignancy of malware Part 3 (SEM 101)

We're going to diverge a bit from our regularly scheduled programming. Normally this column discusses search engine optimization (SEO) and related elements of search engine marketing (SEM), but we're knee deep into our multi-part series on malware and we're going to begin the wrap-up with a talk about improving computer security. However, I geeked out a bit here, and the column went a bit long (yeah, even longer than usual!), so I decided to break this last section up into two pieces. Who wants to read a white paper as a blog post? I mean, besides me? :-)

While beefing up your computer security practices won't necessarily have a direct affect your site's SEO performance, consider the repercussions of not doing so. Presenting a malware-infected website to your customers is a great way to ruin the integrity and conversion potential of your online business. Top tier search engines like Bing will either block a malware-infected page from showing up in its search engine results pages (SERPs) or will redirect the affected page's link to a malware warning message. Bing presents the following warning message when searchers click its SERP link for a malware-infected page:

Since the vast majority of searchers will never opt to click through to override a malware warning from a SERP, assuming the link to the affected page is even shown in the first place, failure to quickly address detected malware infections is a great way to kill off pretty much all of your search referral traffic. And those customers who navigate directly to your site will not likely come back once they've determined your site was the source of their newly acquired malware infection.

In Part 1 of this series on malware, we discussed how to detect a malware infection on your website using tools like Bing's Webmaster Center. The Part 2 post was a long discussion on the resources and strategies for identifying the types and locations of malware code that typically affect websites, and included high-level information on removing it from your site. Today's post, Part 3, and the next one, Part 4, present altogether 10 solid recommendations on how to better secure your workstation and web server computers so that the infections don't come back. After all, what good is it to invest time in shooing away a kitchen full of house flies when you haven't bothered to close the screen door?

Recommended security strategies

Once malware is removed, steps need to be taken to secure your website to prevent malware from reappearing on your website in the future. Securing all of the computers involved with creating, managing, and serving your website are the keys to success. If you were infected with malware, that means your computer infrastructure has one or more security vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. The following preventive measures are key tasks that either you or your hosting provider (likely a combination of both) need to take.

1. Install and use an antivirus tool

If you have not done so yet, install and run a fully capable antivirus software tool on the computer workstation you use to develop and upload your website content. If your web server is not otherwise protected, also install an appropriate antivirus solution on it as well. A high-quality antivirus product will support scanning embedded scripts and other locally saved webpage controls used in your website's source code for any known malware, so don't skimp on quality and features here.

Once you have an antivirus solution installed, be sure to regularly update both the tool's program code and its malware signature files used for detection. Most modern antivirus tools have update features built-in, but make sure the update feature is working as expected before setting it and forgetting it. If you need some convincing as to why keeping your antivirus solution updated is important, I can only refer you to the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (to which Bing is a key contributor). And lastly, remember to use your antivirus tool! You need to regularly scan your Internet-connected computers for malware to ensure they remain clean.

Microsoft offers a free, web-based, anti-malware scanner called Windows Live OneCare safety scanner. It works on computers running Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. It checks for and removes viruses, spyware, and other likely unwanted software, as well as detects vulnerabilities in your Internet connection. Heck, it can even be used to clean up your hard drive and tune up your computer's performance!

Microsoft has also just released its Microsoft Security Essentials program, a new, no-cost, anti-malware solution that runs in the background of your computer and protects it in real-time against viruses, spyware, and other malicious software. Check it out.

2. Install and use an anti-spyware tool

If your antivirus solution doesn't specifically include it (and many do these days), you should also install a good anti-spyware scanning and protection tool on your workstation (since you likely don't surf the Web directly from your web server, this protection is likely not needed there). As with the antivirus tool, keep this tool updated and use it regularly to scan your computer for problems. The last thing you want to do is introduce malware into your web server environment from a compromised workstation!

Microsoft also offers a free antispyware tool called Windows Defender. It actively protects your computer in real-time against pop-ups, performance problems, and security threats by detecting and removing spyware and other unwanted software.

3. Use a firewall

At a minimum, you should use a software firewall utility to protect your workstation and server from external hackers. A software firewall blocks unauthorized and inappropriate network traffic to your computer. Hackers employ these techniques to take control of, and thus install malware on, your system. Many software firewall options exist, both for Windows users and users of other platforms. On your server, use the firewall to block all inbound traffic except for normal web server requests traffic and a secure access method for your webmaster site uploads from predefined computers.

To improve security further, consider installing a separate hardware firewall device between your computers and the Internet that offers, at a minimum, stateful packet inspection (SPI). Firewall devices use SPI to track the state of the network connections passing through them. Rogue or malformed TCP/IP network packets, sometimes implemented by hackers to get through weaker firewall solutions, are rejected by SPI-enabled firewalls. Application-level filter firewalls are better yet, as they work at the application layer of the network protocol stack, where they can more safely examine which network protocol is used on which port and determine whether its use is appropriate.

4. Use a secure protocol to access your web server

Standard FTP protocol doesn't encrypt the data as it's transmitted, so if your computer or its network has been compromised by hacker using network sniffer technologies, your web server's logon credentials are at risk of being stolen. As alluded to in the section on firewall, using Secure FTP or Secure Shell (SSH) eliminates this potential vulnerability. Make sure you do this end-to-end, from the site developer to the webmaster and from the webmaster to the server.

5. Change and strengthen your passwords

Your computer security is usually only as good as the freshness and strength of the passwords you use to access your computer. If your passwords haven't been changed since the days 'N Sync was still hot, it's time to say "Bye Bye Bye" to that. You need to implement a regimen of regularly changing your passwords. And when you do, please make them harder to guess than "password" or something else hyper-obvious. Check out the article, Create strong passwords, for helpful tips on doing this.

Yeah, you don't need to tell me that this is inconvenient. But if you choose to skip doing this, while you might be happier temporarily, hackers will be thrilled. Static, simple passwords are easy to crack, and once hackers figure out your logon credentials, they can do anything they want to your site, including locking you out! Imagine having a hacked site and you can't even log in to fix the problem!

More recommendations to come

We'll continue with another five recommendations for securing your webmaster computing environment in our next post. If you have any questions or comments about malware, please feel free to post them in our General Questions forum. For regular SEM and SEO questions and suggestions, please go to our SEM forum. I'll be back…

-- Rick DeJarnette, Bing Webmaster Center