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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.

Combatting hotlinking

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 Frequently Asked Questions

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