Hijacking Google search results for fun, not profit: UK SEO uncovers XML sitemap exploit in Google Search Console
SEO wins bug bounty from Vulnerability Reward Program, Google search team confirms the exploit no longer works
In 2017, Google paid nearly $3 million to individuals and researchers as part of their Vulnerability Reward Program (VRP), which encourages the security research community to find and report vulnerabilities in Google products.
This week, Tom Anthony — who heads Product Research & Development at Distilled, an SEO agency — was awarded a bug bounty of $1,337 for discovering an exploit that enabled one site to hijack the search engine results page (SERP) visibility and traffic of another — quickly getting indexed and easily ranking for the victimized site’s competitive keywords.
Detailed in his blog post, Anthony describes how Google’s Search Console (GSC) sitemap submission via ping URL essentially allowed him to submit an XML sitemap for a site he does control, as if it were a sitemap for one he does not. He did this by first finding a target site that allowed open redirects; scraping its contents and creating a duplicate of that site (and its URL structures) on a test server. He then submitted an XML sitemap to Google (hosted on the test server) that included URLs for the targeted domain with hreflang directives pointing to those same URLs, now also present on the test domain.
Hijacking the SERPs
Within 48 hours, the test domain started receiving traffic. Within the week, the test site was ranking for competitive terms on page 1 of the SERPs. Also, GSC showed the two sites as related — listing the targeted site as linking to the test site:
This presumed relationship also allowed Anthony to submit other XML sitemaps — within the test site’s GSC at this point, not via ping URL — for the targeted site:
Understanding the scope
Open redirects themselves are not a new or novel problem – and Google has been warning webmasters about shoring up their sites against this attack vector since 2009. What is noteworthy here is that utilizing an open redirect worked to not just submit a rogue sitemap, but to effectively rank a brand-new domain, brand-new site, with zero actual inbound links, and no promotion. And then to get that brand-new site and domain over a million search impressions, 10,000 unique visitors and 40,000 page views (via search traffic only) in three weeks.
The “bug” here is both a problem with sitemap submissions (the subsequent sail-through GSC sitemap submissions are alarming) and a greater problem as to how the algorithm immediately applied all the equity from the one site across to the completely separate and unrelated domain.
I reached out to Google with a series of detailed questions about this exploit, including the search quality team’s involvement in pursuing and implementing a fix, and whether or not they are able to detect and take action on any bad actors that may have already exploited this vulnerability. A Google spokesperson replied:
When we were alerted to the issue, we worked closely across teams to address it. It was not a previously known issue and we don’t believe it had been used.
In response to questions about changes with respect to sitemap submissions, GSC and the transfer of equity affecting results, the spokesperson said:
We continue to recommend that site-owners use sitemaps to let us know about new & updated pages within their website. Additionally, the new Search Console also uses sitemaps as a way of drilling down into specific information within your website in the Index Coverage report. If you’re hosting your sitemaps outside of your website, for proper usage it’s important that you have both sites verified in the same Search Console account.
I discussed this exploit and the research at length with Anthony.