• Cybersecurity

What Impact Does Cybersecurity Have On SEO?

  • Felix Rose-Collins
  • 6 min read
What Impact Does Cybersecurity Have On SEO?

Intro

A typical SEO strategy is made up of several rapidly-moving parts: are you performing extensive keyword research, for example? Are you including optimized meta tags in your content? Are you focusing on building backlinks to your site? If you know your SEO, you’ll know that all of these — among many others — are essential elements of successful SEO.

But we’ll bet you didn’t have _cybersecurity _as one of the pillars of your SEO strategy? Of course, user safety and data protection is rarely the responsibility of an SEO team, but it pays to at least have an appreciation and understanding of the importance of website security when it comes to SEO.

But just how _does _cybersecurity have an impact on a website’s ability to rank within the SERPs of Google and other search engines?

Let’s explore the ways in which SEO and cybersecurity are inextricably linked, before offering some essential security tips to safeguard your SEO strategy.

How does cybersecurity affect SEO?

Search engines penalize ‘unsafe’ sites

Google and other search engines place significant importance on the user experience (UX) — encompassing interactivity, visual stability, loading performance, and mobile-friendliness — when determining the rank of websites within their SERPs, and security is a key element of this. Back in 2014, Google announced it had begun “taking into account whether sites use secure, encrypted connections as a signal in [its] search ranking algorithms”, and while this is considered a _lightweight _signal, it could still prove to be a “tiebreaker” when determining the ranking position of two otherwise equally-matched sites.

When a website has HTTPS — rather than simply HTTP — at the start of its web address, it shows search engines that the connection to the site is encrypted and the user is safe to browse to it. This is achieved through something called an SSL certificate (more on that later), and will not only help to boost search rankings but increase your click-through rate by inspiring user confidence. If the _opposite _is true and your site doesn’t have a secure HTTPS connection, you’re unlikely to build organic traffic for two reasons: Google may consider it unsafe and assign it a low rank, while users may feel wary about visiting it.

Malicious bots can cause crawling errors

A significant proportion of your website traffic will likely come from bots — spider bots, scraper bots, and so on — and while many of these will pose no security risk, it’s thought that over a quarter of all website traffic is made up of bots with more _nefarious _purposes. ‘Bad bots’ can introduce all kinds of threats, of course — from denial-of-service to data extraction — but even if their attempts are unsuccessful, continuous visits from bad bots _can _interfere with legitimate search engine bots crawling your site.

Repetitive, automated tasks from bad bots may introduce crawling errors that prevent search engine bots from indexing or finding your pages. If a search engine encounters an error while crawling your site, it will go back and attempt to find another ‘way in’ — this may result in one or more of pages being crawled more than is necessary, or it _could _mean some of your pages not being crawled at all, which would effectively make it ‘un-rankable’ content that will never show up in SERPs.

Extended downtime can hurt rankings

Mere mention of the term downtime _can cause any website owner to break out into a cold sweat, since it can often result in significant loss of revenue as well as a reputational bruising. More than three quarters of businesses worldwide have suffered at least _some _service downtime in the past year, with 56% of that being attributed to an internal or external attack (as illustrated below). If a business falls victim to a major cyber attack such as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), this can lead to hours — or even _days — of website unavailability while the situation is remedied.

Extended downtime can hurt rankings (Image: Atlas VPN)

Inevitably, an extended period of downtime is likely to have a significant impact on your search ranking — and not _just _during the period of unavailability. If your site is experiencing downtime when ‘Googlebot’ is attempting to crawl it, it will receive a 500 HTTP status code error. This _shouldn’t _have too much of an impact as long as the downtime issue is resolved by the next time Googlebot visits, but if it _repeatedly _encounters a 500 error due to prolonged downtime, it may attempt to crawl your site less frequently — potentially harming your site’s ability to rank.

Your site could fall victim to an SEO spam attack

A more _direct _threat to your SEO strategy, SEO spamming is a type of black hat SEO technique which floods a target site with unwanted content and malicious links, and it’s typically done with the intention of building multiple backlinks to another — often fraudulent — website. Any SEO aficionado will know that backlink building is a valuable SEO practice that takes time and patience, but SEO spammers try to circumvent this by flooding compromised sites with backlinks in order to inflate the rankings of their own sites.

In certain cases, the effects of an SEO spam attack are subtle and may not even be immediately obvious. Often a spammer will simply implant a few unwanted links into an existing article, but they may use more aggressive tactics such as spoofing pages and ‘hiding’ backlinks within your website’s source code. Signs you’ve been a victim of an SEO spam attack include:

  • Peculiar links appearing in your content (that you don’t remember putting there yourself)
  • New pages appearing on your site that you didn't create
  • Content appearing on your site in different languages
  • Your links redirecting to other sites in search results
  • Your ranking metrics suddenly looking unusual

How can you protect your site and safeguard your SEO?

Install an SSL certificate

Remember when we mentioned that search engines — and more often than not, users — favor a site with a secure HTTPS connection? This is achieved through obtaining an SSL certificate, an essential security protocol which authenticates a website’s identity and enables an encrypted link between server and browser.

Install an SSL certificate (Image: Pixabay)

Fortunately, many website _hosting _providers offer SSL certificates as part of their standard hosting packages, though do your research before considering a migration. Cloud-based solutions such as Cloudways are very likely to prove suitable, but alternative hosting options (virtual private servers, for instance) rarely include SSL certificates without additional cost.

Scan for threats

A malware scanner can be programmed to automatically detect, highlight and remove threats on your site. Without one, malware could go undetected and infiltrate your site before you can block it, potentially with serious consequences — data theft, denial-of-service, not to mention reputational damage that could have long-lasting effects.

While many hosting providers include malware scanning tools, there are completely free alternatives such as Avast. You should also look to install bot protection to block bad bots from accessing your site, while a firewall will help to keep malicious traffic at bay.

Enforce a strong password policy

A key part of website security is ensuring that your in-house workforce understands its importance. They should have a good idea how to spot and report a phishing email, for example, while it’s also essential that you enforce the use of strong passwords across all company accounts.

Passwords that fall short of best practice when it comes to length and complexity will be far easier for an attacker to crack — particularly if they use a brute-force technique — so ensure that access to all company programs is controlled through strong passwords and two-factor authentication if necessary.

Keep software up-to-date

Outdated software is often a prime target for attackers, since it typically contains vulnerabilities which have since been remedied in subsequent releases. If an attacker can determine which software — and which _version _of that software — you’re using, they may be able to easily exploit it, especially as these vulnerabilities are often common knowledge within the cybercriminal faction.

You should ensure that _all _software you’re using is regularly updated to the latest stable version offered by the vendor, as this will ensure your organization is less vulnerable to attack.

Perform penetration testing

‘Pentesting’ is when a company attempts to ‘hack’ its own systems as a way of measuring its security credentials. Typically performed by a third-party specialist, a pentest aims to uncover vulnerabilities within an organization's infrastructure so they can be remedied _before _they become a serious security risk.

IT Governance recommends running a penetration test at least once annually (or at least each time you make significant updates to your infrastructure) to catch any underlying issues that could be exploited by an opportunistic hacker.

Have an recovery plan in place

Of course, even with the most robust security features in place, it’s never possible to _completely _eliminate the risk of a cyber attack. That’s why it’s important to ensure that — if your website _does _become compromised by an attacker — you have an incident response plan in place to mitigate the damage caused.

Without a clear recovery plan, your website is likely to suffer from extended downtime while you scramble to find a resolution, and as we’ve already pointed out, downtime which lasts longer than a few hours is likely to have a long-term SEO impact.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while cybersecurity might not be top of your list when it comes to mapping out your SEO strategy, you should at least be aware of the significant impact it can have on search rankings. SEO spammers can pose a direct threat to your ranking potential, while the indirect impact caused by extended downtime or a lack of end-to-end encryption can be damaging to SEO, too.

Cybersecurity has a knock-on effect on all aspects of business operations, including SEO. Complacency might just cost you that coveted place on Google’s page one, but a well-thought-out security strategy will enable you to keep driving organic traffic to your site without fear of it suddenly tumbling down the rankings.

Felix Rose-Collins

Felix Rose-Collins

is the Co-founder of Ranktracker, With over 10 years SEO Experience . He's in charge of all content on the SEO Guide & Blog, you will also find him managing the support chat on the Ranktracker App.

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