News travels fast. Blogs and other websites pick up a news story only about 2.5 hours on average after it has been reported by traditional media. This leads to an almost continuous supply of new “trending” topics, which are then amplified across the Internet, before fading away relatively quickly. Many web companies track these terms, on search engines and in social media.
However narrow, these first moments after a story breaks present a window of opportunity for miscreants to infiltrate web and social network search results in response. The motivation for doing so is primarily financial. Websites that rank high in response to a search for a trending term are likely to receive considerable amounts of traffic, regardless of their quality.
In particular, the sole goal of many sites designed in response to trending terms is to produce revenue through the advertisements that they display in their pages, without providing any original content or services. Such sites are often referred to as “Made for AdSense” (MFA) after the name of the Google advertising platform they are often targeting. Whether such activity is deemed to be criminal or merely a nuisance remains an open question, and largely depends on the tactics used to prop the sites up in the search-engine rankings. Some other sites devised to respond to trending terms have more overtly sinister motives. For instance, a number of malicious sites serve malware in hopes of infecting visitors’ machines, or peddle fake anti-virus software.
Together with Nektarios Leontiadis and Nicolas Christin, I have carried out a large-scale measurement and analysis of trending-term exploitation on the web, and the results are being presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS) in Chicago this week. Based on a collection of over 60 million search results and tweets gathered over nine months, we characterize how trending terms are used to perform web search-engine manipulation and social-network spam. The full details can be found in the paper and presentation. Continue reading Fashion crimes: trending-term exploitation on the web