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How To Create A Google-Friendly Site Blackout

Posted by Michael Bloch in web development (Tuesday January 17, 2012 )

The looming “blackout” of the English version of Wikipedia has been big news and other webmasters have expressed a desire to follow suit. But how do you hobble your entire site for a day or so and make a statement to all who visit your site during that time without putting your Google rankings at risk?

In just under 21 hours from now (05:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 18), English Wikipedia will go dark and the usual content will not be accessible – not just for US folks, but everyone. All 25 million people who visit the resource each day will not see the content they are expecting.

Wikipedia’s reason is a protest over proposed US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) legislation. You can read more about it in a statement from Wikipedia; but in a nutshell, the Wikipedia community see these pieces of legislation as a threat to freedom of speech on the Internet.

While Wikipedia’s 24 hour blackout probably won’t harm their rankings at all however they go about it, a smaller site attempting a similar thing for whatever reason could find themselves in trouble if Googlebot gets the wrong idea about what is happening.

However, there does appear to be a relatively safe way to implement a “blackout” according to Pierre Far, who works in Google’s London office as a Webmaster Trends Analyst.

The key is to return a 503 HTTP status code. HTTP Error 503 means “Service unavailable” – a temporary condition.

Pierre posted his tips after seeing some advice on other sites that could spell problems for site owners that implemented a blackout. Be sure to read all he has to say before trying this.

OK, so this information and 3 bucks will get you a cup of coffee – as equally as important is *how* to return that error code while also informing your site visitors about what is happening. This post on SEOMOZ provides a possible solution, in the form of a strategy used for website maintenance/downtime notifications.

If this still makes you jittery and/or you simply can’t afford to miss out on bucks (which would be a lot of businesses); you don’t need to go the whole hog with a site blackout to show your opposition of SOPA/PIPA or to protest whatever injustice irks you.

You could stick up a banner instead, write up a blog post on the topic, email your subscribers/customers etc. etc. etc. – there’s a lot of different and effective ways to participate in protest action without hobbling your site.


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