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Recommended Host for Hotlink Protection
Hotlinking is active linking to content on your site (video, photos, documents, etc.) by a site on another server. This effectively reduces their bandwidth usage while increasing yours. Therefore many sites choose to prevent hotlinking.
There are other reasons, too. Someone could use your content without proper attribution, which is another concern. After investing the time, money and energy to build your website, the last thing you want is for someone else to profit from your content or build their own successful site at your expense.
Sadly, this happens all over the Web, every single day – hotlinking is just part of the problem.
Why many site owners prevent hotlinking
Since hotlinking is basically the practice of using content directly served by your hardware, via a direct URL to your site, many site owners frown upon it and view it as nothing more than bandwidth theft.
Another site gets all the visitors and ad impressions, but you get stuck with all the traffic from visitors bypassing your site and directly accessing your content. Browsers don’t distinguish between URLs by server, so if your content is visible to the public, the URL is fair game for someone else’s exploitation unless you employ some form of hotlink protection.
There are also a number of scenarios in which hotlinking can be used by malicious actors. For example, bandwidth theft is the most basic and obvious use of hotlinking, but it gets worse. Hotlinking can also be used in some forms of cross-site scripting and phishing attacks, hotlinks to legitimate sites to gain the victim’s confidence. Hotlinking can be used to display copyrighted materials off another site and there are also a few other possible security loopholes – but they usually affect the party doing the hotlinking rather than your site.
Both Linux- and Windows-based servers have applications designed to combat hotlinking.
In general, hotlinking protection involves either purchasing and installing a third-party product (e.g. Hotlink Blocker) designed to mask your URLs from unauthorized views, or activating an existing protection measure already provided by your host (cPanel, the extremely popular web management panel provided by many hosts, comes equipped with a hotlink blocking capabilities).
Whichever you choose, the software will prevent unauthorized access to your content by concealing the actual URL of the content from sites not on its “approved” list. You can also configure it to reroute hotlinks to display an error page, your homepage, or even a promotional offer to lure visitors away from the hotlinker and onto your site.
If your host already supports hotlink blocking as part of its standard web management portal or control panel (usually cPanel), it shouldn’t add any additional expense to your monthly hosting fees.
Third party products range from free to around $100, depending on the features offered. Shop around for the best match for your needs and remember to consult your host before installing any third-party software onto your server.
Different platforms may require a different approach
It also depends on the platform you are using. Some servers use the HTTP referrer to detect hotlinking and display a condemnatory message in place of the expected content. If you have full access to the server, you can also configure it differently, to display a different message or simply not serve the content with no explanation.
On Apache servers you can use the mod_rewrite module to reject or redirect hotlinks to your content. On Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) platforms, you can rely on third party software to combat hotlinking.
However, most hosting companies offer the functionality even with basic hosting plans and provide a step by step guide for users who wish to enable it. This is usually done via cPanel – you simply need to follow instructions and tweak the settings to best suite your needs. For example, you can allow affiliate sites or ‘friendly’ sites and discussion forums to use your images, as they will give you proper credit and link to your original content, boosting your impressions and search ranking.
It all depends on your hotlinking policy. For example, you can also block specific domains, block all domains, or block most domains by editing the .htaccess file – it is entirely up to you.
WordPress also has a number of plugins promising to watermark images and prevent hotlinking, but their capabilities tend to be limited. While it involves a bit more work, you are probably better off using the cPanel or .htaccess approach.
Hotlink Protection Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
Are there legitimate forms of hotlinking?
Absolutely. If you have a good reason to hotlink to someone else’s images, the best thing to do it reach out to them and ask permission. As long as you’re providing proper credit (and a big, fat link back to that person’s site), they probably won’t mind. If someone legitimate wants to link to your images, you can easily provide access by adding them to your allowed site list. If you truly need to link to someone else’s image, but they don’t want you using up their bandwidth, you can also use an image hosting site (or you can offer this solution to someone who wants to use your images). This way the image hosting site takes the traffic, not either of your servers.
How hard is it to configure hotlink protection in cPanel?
If your host provides hotlink protection, you will see a Hotlink Protection icon under the security section in cPanel. Simply click the icon and select the “Enable” option on the Hotlink Protection page. You will then have the options to allow access to certain URLs, enter what type of image files you want to block hotlinking for, and select a redirect URL if you want to direct hotlinks to a specific page. After that, click “Submit” and you’re done.
If I don’t have cPanel, how can I enable hotlink protection?
That will depend on the control panel your host uses and the features they have set up. Some form of hotlink protection may be available through a one-click installation. In some cases, it may be an option under the provided .htaccess editor. If your server does not provide hotlink protection, there are plenty of free or paid programs available, which you can install manually.
If I want to use an .htaccess file to block hotlinking, how do I create one in Windows?
Windows won’t allow you to name a file (or rename it) .htaccess. To create an .htaccess file, you need to use a program like Notepad, use the “All types (*.*)” option when you save, and enter the .htaccess name in the save dialog.
Are there any programs that will automatically create a hotlink blocking .htaccess file for me?
Yes. There are a number of tools available to auto-create an .htaccess file. Sites like htaccesstools.com allow you to set restriction levels, redirect hotlinks to a specific URL, and enter the types of images you want to protect. Once you have selected your options, these sites will generate an .htaccess file that you can upload directly to your server.
How do I know my hotlink protection is working?
There are a number of tools available, including free web-based tools, that allow you to test hotlink protection by creating a temporary link to an image on your site. If the site is able to pull your image, your hotlink protection is not working.
Are there any sites I should allow to hotlink?
There are times when it’s probably worth eating up your own bandwidth to allow another site to host your pictures. The most obvious of these is allowing access to Google. Google images (or Bing or Yahoo for you non-conformists), is your greatest ally in getting new visitors to your site, and images are a great way to lure them in. In your hotlink options, it’s a good idea to allow access to the major search engines because a blank image or annoying redirect won’t entice many Googlers to visit your site.
Are there guides for creating my own .htaccess hotlink protection?
There are a number of guides available. Some are very simple and not particularly effective, but with a little searching, you should be able to find a thorough guide that walks you through the various options available for hotlink protection. Since the best approach is constantly changing, in response to constantly changes attempts around it, review several options, make sure to stick with fairly recent posts, and pick the approach that provides the most complete protection.
Does hotlink protection prevent other direct links, such as a link from an email?
It can, but it doesn’t have to. Most hotlink protection programs will provide an option to allow direct links, such as those you might send out yourself in an email or your organization’s newsletter.
Is there any risk involved in enabling hotlink protection?
Hotlink protection should not put your content or server at any risk. In fact, it provides additional security for both. However, there may be a risk in terms of site traffic. If your hotlink protection blocks legitimate access, such as sites that were giving you proper credit and driving users to your page, or image search engines that drive traffic to sites, you may see a decline in visitors or a drop in your search engine rankings. If you do enable hotlink protection, be sure to allow access to any sites that may benefit you by using legitimate hotlinks.
How does paid hotlink protection compare to free versions?
The difference will typically involve general convenience and the degree to which you can customize what gets protected and who has access. If you just need to protect your image files, the free protection provided by your host will probably do just fine. But if you need to protect other content, or set up highly-specialized exceptions, a paid option may provide a better service.
Can users still download my images and use them on their website if I have hotlink protection?
Yes. Hotlink protection only stops other websites from linking directly to your images. It does not stop users from downloading images directly from your website and using them on their own.