Have you ever visited a website — only to be greeted by an alarming red screen that reads: “The site ahead contains malware”? That’s quite the deterrent, and chances are, you left the page in a hurry. That’s what happens when Google and other search engines blacklist a website.

Blacklisting websites is how search engines protect browsers from malicious content. Google and other search engines send bots to scan websites and flag anything suspicious. If your website is deemed a threat, then it’s removed from the search engine’s results page. And for small businesses that rely on their websites to capture and convert leads, this can have serious consequences. 

What It Means to Be Blacklisted

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You may not know that your website has been infected with malware — but you’ll figure it out when Google or another search engine detects it and marks your site with the warning label. The same warning could also appear next to your domain name when prospective customers try to search for your business directly.

Being removed from Google or another search engine’s results page means your visibility will plummet. Users won’t be able to find your website via Google, and even if they visit your website directly, they’ll be deterred by that infamous warning. Ultimately, low visibility causes traffic to tank, which could inevitably hurt sales. Your SEO efforts will become a sunk cost, and the longer the warning sign remains on the site, the more the damage multiplies.

These consequences can be devastating for small businesses, in particular. For instance, one website owner saw a 50% drop in traffic to her small business’s site after being blacklisted. Ultimately, she had to hire an expert for $1,000 before she could resubmit her site to Google. And this was a relatively inexpensive fix: It can cost up to $10,000 depending on the extent of the damage.

How to Get Your Website Off the Blacklist

So why does Google blacklist sites if it’s so harmful to small businesses? Though it may seem like search engines are punishing site owners for having malicious links or content on their site, that’s not the case. Google and other search engines blacklist sites in order to protect web users.

If you are blacklisted, you’ll need to get back up and running as soon as possible to avoid lasting damage. The first step, of course, is to remove all malware from your website and database, which can be done by implementing an automated website malware scanner. The automated scanner will find and remove any malicious content on your website, and it should have the capacity to patch security vulnerabilities to prevent “quiet attacks,” such as JavaScript or backdoor files.

Once your site is malware-free, the next step is to create a Google Webmasters account and request that the search engine recrawls your site. If Google fails to detect malware during its scan, it will take your site off the blacklist and remove the warning label.

Even if you mitigate the problem and restore your site as quickly as possible, however, those who did see the warning screen may not be keen to revisit your site anytime soon. This is one reason preventing cyberattacks with the right website security solution should be your first line of defense. 

You can’t rely on Google or other search engines to catch all malicious links or content on your site. After all, not all infected sites are blacklisted. In fact, research from the “SiteLock 2019 Website Security Report” found that only 15% of sites containing malware were blacklisted by search engines last year. Take adequate precautions by implementing automated security tools, and you won’t have to worry about how to get your website off the Google blacklist.

How to Avoid Being Blacklisted

To secure your website and avoid being blacklisted, take these three steps.

1. Safeguard incoming traffic. The first step is to implement a web application firewall, which will act as a gatekeeper for incoming traffic. A WAF will block bad bots that could inject SEO spam, malicious links, and other nefarious content — all of which could flag you as a candidate for blacklisting.

2. Detect malware before search engines. Don’t wait to implement an automated malware scanner until after you’ve been blacklisted. Instead, implement an automated malware scanner to find and remove malware before Google or other search engines find it first. A good scanner should help prevent infection and blacklisting.

3. Properly evaluate external links. Any links being used on your website for advertising, affiliate marketing, or linking to another site should be properly vetted. If Google notices that your links lead to dozens of spam sites, it might blacklist your site, even if you aren’t hosting malicious content.

Being blacklisted can cause permanent damage to your small business, but don’t blame Google: It’s only trying to protect web users. You should share that goal. By having robust cybersecurity strategies in place, you can prevent malware from entering your website and avoid having to get your website off the Google blacklist in the first place.

Monique Becenti is a product and channel marketing specialist at SiteLock, a cloud-based website security provider currently protecting more than 12 million websites globally. Monique is passionate about improving the customer experience for all. SiteLock’s combination of dedicated research and developmental efforts, aggressive product road maps, and access to a massive global data set make the company a leading innovator in web security.