SOPA Dope – Today’s “Blackout”, Tomorrow’s SEO Audit

January 18th, 2012 by Search Influence Alumni

sopa blackout

Deep thoughts by bigtime lawyers...

Nearly everyone in the technology sector, especially those focused on the Internet, have een talking about the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act. We’re not here to debate the finer points of combatting intellectual property theft on the internet — the “SOPA Blackout” has done a fine one-sided job of that. (If you’re interested in a very in-depth look at the whole saga, try Forbes’s information dump.) This “Blackout” has all the right components of a perfect case study of SEO, technical site architecture, viral marketing, and the nature of the internet.

As a preface, President Obama has basically said SOPA in its current form is a no-go. Similarly, by 8:30am, SOPA was losing supporters in the Senate. Whether by virtue of the Internet’s rage or by simple practicality and a realization that the legislature was in over its collective head, SOPA and PIPA seem to be sidelined. Similar bills are waiting in the wings, but will likely not see the light of day until months later.

Full Blackout

sopa blackout wikipedia

Imagine a World Without Wikipedia

Two sites led the initial charge for the Blackout, and they did it almost completely. Reddit and Wikipedia have nearly completely blacked out their sites, both seemingly using JavaScript. Wikipedia has done this by hiding all the content on the page, then adding a content block using jQuery. As soon as this happened, some found a way to hack around it using a browser console, but most users will lose access to one the most-trafficked pure information sites on the Internet. Wikipedia’s method likely has no SEO impact, but is effective at getting the user to do what the site wants — ponder life without a user-generated information source like Wikipedia, and use their already-extant legislator search to find the right person to bug about the issue.

sopa blackout reddit

What if I want a news link?

Reddit, on the other hand, is serving a totally different page for all links to the site. Not only is it providing information and calls to action to call a representative or sign a petition, but it also provides a list of compatriots who have also “gone black.” But both of these full blackouts highlight a major problem for a business site — what if someone is looking for your site? Looking for your content? Looking to buy something from you?

sopa blackout minecraft seo

Man, I hope they meant to do that...

One of Reddit’s brothers-in-arms is the game Minecraft, which is a for-pay game that’s been a bit of a media darling for its bizarre gameplay. But today, if you’re trying to find out about the game, all you can find from the site itself is that they’ve shut down the site in protest of SOPA. And that’s the gamble with a full takedown of your site — are your users aligned with you enough to understand or even support a totally unusable site? Is Wikipedia going to lose share to or another mirror of the encyclopedia? Will Reddit lose share to

The answer is, not really. Barring some shocking numbers come tomorrow, even any lost traffic today will be forgotten tomorrow. In addition, the kind of domain-level link-love and social clout that will be showered upon these sites may override any short-term losses. Essentially, we won’t forget that Wikipedia still has solid information about every Pokemon, that Reddit is the nouveau-garde of social sharing, or that is probably a trusted source for information about the game.

Blackouts for Smaller Sites?

But for personal sites, small businesses, and other smaller sites without the kind of instant recognition, the loss of a sale might be too much. While we’ve talked about the general level of knowledge of website owners, nowhere is it more evident than when this kind of blackout goes bad. WordPress has been shilling its “SOPAstrike” plugin, to be used by website owners to serve an SEO-friendly “503 Service Unavailable” error and redirect to yet another page to contact someone in charge. It’ll even bring your site back whenever it’s done!

Here’s the code for the suggested plugin:

function sopastrike()
		if(time() > 1326862801 && time() < 1326934800)
			header("HTTP/1.1 503 Service Unavailable");
function phone_home()
	$url = get_bloginfo('siteurl');
	$name = get_bloginfo('name');
	$context = stream_context_create(array( 
	  'http' => array( 
	      'timeout' => 1 
	$content = 
	.urlencode($url).'&name='.urlencode($name), false,  $context); 

Notice that phone_home()? The plugin description does mention that it will add your url and name to a petition automatically, but with all the vitriol and pushing, who has time to read all of 15 sentences? In addition, you’re trusting this author to not say, publish your link to a bunch of “bad neighborhoods” as SEOmoz likes to call them. It’s a security hole, even if it’s one with someone you think you can trust. Can your business handle that? Barring technical issues, will your business be able to lose that traffic and still make your daily sales? Certainly one bad day even if you have no sales shouldn’t wreck your profitability, but will one day of actually being down and then a few more days until your site has been crawled again? What if you forget something and are still serving the wrong kind of page?

sopa blackout bad seo

Man, and I liked that game...

If you’re not going to use the recommendation and use something like Wikipedia’s javascript content, a small business oftentimes doesn’t have enough resources to consider the SEO implications of what it has done. The team that is making the game Overgrowth didn’t. This is a snippet from their site, a first-page result for the term [sopa successors]. While their splash sure is pretty, do they want such unrelated search traffic? When will their site be crawled again before Google thinks the home page is highly related to SOPA?

And what about the plugin they used? All programmers are not SEO whizzes. While it’s easy to slap your forehead on such a boneheaded move, you can’t assume that even a popular plugin will be the right way to create your protest. Again, the simple solution for small businesses is not always the safest for their search rankings.

Porn and Other Easy Fixes

Of course, blocking out your site or even worrying about if your content is being crawled is not on your radar if you simply change your images a little. Matt Cutts, Twitpic, Google, and some of your Facebook and Twitter friends have used this method to show that they do not support the bill. This easy change usually has little SEO effect, but you could get some interested search if you use image alt tags intelligently.

SOPA blackout porn sites

Porn Companies Care!

But it’s not just the highbrow ivory-towered linkerati who are protesting SOPA. Porn companies are doing it harder. One of the industries most impacted by SOPA could be adult entertainment. Many sites are user-generated, falling under the same licensing and piracy issues that YouTube would have. These companies have largely installed banners or JavaScript “click to see your content” splash pages.

Viral Call to Action

Moving from porn to an almost-related subject, the virality of the SOPA blackout has provided a killer case for organic lead generation. A lobbyist group like the Electronic Frontier Foundation can easily get a list of supporters and possible wallets to back their efforts, simply by being the recipient of a large amount of blacked-out links.

sopa blackout landing page lead generation

What a Gorgeous Landing Page. What do you think they want you to do?

This page is a beautiful example of how to get leads. The opt-in for the newsletter makes the user feel like it’s solely to make a stand, sign a petition, and publicly project your feelings. But even if a user doesn’t click that box, demographics, cross-referencing with social networks for deeper information, and simple numbers of responses allows the EFF to better target its marketing efforts online. The EFF could also (but isn’t, in line with their ideals) grab referrer data or other tracking information to further hone their form submissions.

Finally, these form submissions would never have happened without truly viral support. Random people are linking to the EFF, because they believe in the cause that EFF is championing. They touched a true part in many internet denizens’ hearts, and have reaped the benefits. This kind of authentic sharing is at the key of this blackout — even as most sites have maintained some kind of functionality to their content. It’s not about the action here, but the message, and as sites from as many industries as can be get behind the message, maybe we’ll see the lasting search and marketing effects of the action as the week plays out.

SOPA Blackout Roundup