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Are you ready for tomorrow’s SOPA blackout?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a controversial piece of proposed U.S. legislation designed to “fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.” A large proportion of the digital community is fighting this legislation in hopes of stopping it from passing, on the grounds that it would create some very serious concerns about freedom of information. While the television, film and music industries mostly support the bill, a large portion of the digital community – including large players such as Google and Yahoo – is vehemently against it. In response, tomorrow, January 18th, has been designated as a day of protest against the legislation, on which a number of large sites will “go dark” for the day.

Whatever your stance on SOPA, there will be some very large companies and websites participating in tomorrow’s blackout, including Wikipedia, Reddit,  Mozilla, Boing Boing and many more, and digital marketers should be paying close attention, because this large-scale blackout could have an effect on your business, whether you know it or not.

If your company is participating in the blackout, then chances are, your website will be either completely dark, or replaced by anti-SOPA messaging, for the day. This means that there are a few obvious things you should be considering when it comes to your marketing campaigns:

  • Use a 503 status message. If you plan to take your website down temporarily as a political protest, a 503 status message will clearly let Google know that your temporary blackout period or protest message isn’t “real” content and should not be indexed as a replacement for your actual site content. It will also avoid any duplicate content issues that could penalize you in SEO.
  • Pause your paid search and display. There’s no sense in paying to direct traffic to a dark website. Furthermore, directing traffic to error pages, even for a short one-day period, can actually negatively impact your quality score.
  • Think about your landing pages for media that you can’t change. Don’t just take down your entire site and replace your homepage with a temporary message. Think about what media you have in market – offline, out of home, print, direct mail, email – and where the media is pointing your customers. At the very least, create temporary messages at those landing pages, too.
  • Keep an eye on your webmaster tools account. You will likely see some Google crawling errors for the next few days after your site blackout. Monitor these carefully to ensure that your crawling rates return to normal quickly, and follow up on any issues or red flags that emerge.

Even if you don’t plan to participate, here are some things you can do in advance of tomorrow’s blackout to ensure that your search initiatives aren’t negatively affected:

  • Temporarily reroute your outbound links. If you have a high number of outbound links that are directing traffic to sites that will be blacked out, those links may not work, and this can have a negative impact on your site’s quality score because Google will assume that you have a lot of “broken” links. There are automated tools that can temporarily disable or remove these links for the blackout period.
  • Think about your conversion goals. If you’re sending traffic to a site that will be blacked out in order to complete a conversion goal, then consider disabling this clickpath or rerouting the traffic for the day.
  • Consider your inbound traffic sources. If you typically get a large amount of traffic from a site that will be going dark tomorrow, chances are, this will affect your performance for the day. At the very least, you will need to take this into account in your daily performance reports.

A note for Canadian companies:

  • SOPA is American legislation, but it will affect Canadian sites, too, because we share the same regional IP addresses as US-based sites and tend to use the same top-level (.com, .net and .org) domain names as our neighbours to the south. In the Toronto Star, Michael Geist warns that under the proposed legislation, the US could claim millions of Canadian domain names. Canadian companies should be keeping a close eye on this legislation as well, as it will have ramifications that reach across borders.

Armed with the above information, you should be ready for tomorrow’s SOPA blackout day, at least. Whether or not your business is ready for SOPA is another question altogether.

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