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On January 18, major sites including Wikipedia and Reddit protested the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Internet Property Act (PIPA) being considered in the United States Congress by going black. Instead of being able to use the sites, visitors were informed of the blackout. “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge,” read the banner. Back online, Wikipedia’s message was “We’re not done yet.” But what about the websites that participated in the blackout and do not enjoy Wikipedia’s incredible name recognition and reputation? How did they ensure their search engine optimisation efforts were not set back months?
Google posted some tips for websites participating in the SOPA and PIPA protests, and according to nonprofit organisation, Fight for the Future, 75,000 sites participated in the blackout. One of the things they did (or should have done) was use a 503 error. You’ll see these messages when sites go offline for maintenance. 503 tells the search engines to come back later; as long as the blackout is short-lived, say a day, then it should not have any long-lasting effects. Webmasters should (have or should in the future) implement a 503 HTTP header for all of the URLs that are going to be involved in the protest. This could be for the entire site, or webmasters could select which specific content would be blacked out.
Google will know that the content you are displaying is not your real content; that is, it will know that “Stop SOPA” is not the content you feature normally. It won’t be indexed, and even though your message may be the same on each page, it will not cause you to be penalized for duplicate content.
What you should not do is change your robots.txt file to show “Disallow:/” Why not? This will block Google from crawling your site. But what’s the problem if it is blacked out anyway? Instead of seeing the 503 message, Google will be, in essence, blocked from indexing your site. It is likely that changing your robots.txt file could impact ranking and cause crawling difficulties that extend past the blackout.
If there is another blackout to protest these acts, sites will be ready to act without hurting their SEO efforts.

Posted by Ed Shutenko, SEO Manager at Bullseye Media

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