SOPA, PIPA and Search Engine Marketing

By Ariele McWhinney | Jan 19, 2012
More Articles by Ariele

Google blackout protest

If you just happened to be on the internet yesterday, you may have noticed many websites you visited were protesting the controversial bills SOPA and PIPA by “blacking-out” their logos or going dark completely for the day. What is this all about? And in this volatile internet marketing world we’re in, what are the implications for search engine marketing?

What are SOPA and PIPA?

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are proposed House and Senate bills, respectively, that aim to crack down on copyright infringement by disciplining foreign sites that host copyrighted content. The main example of this kind of website is file-sharing host The Pirate Bay that enables illegal sharing and downloading of files from music to computer games to movies. The bills in question would be able to shut down the hosting site by cutting off the site’s main revenue: advertising. The proposed bills would require search engines like Google to cause the restricted site to not appear in search results and payment processors like PayPal to cut off the site’s funds. The bills also state that the site’s ISPs would be able to completely block the site at a moment’s notice: a scary thought.

Sounds simple enough, right? Piracy is illegal and should probably be penalized. The issue, however, is in the wording of the bill. The language is so vague that one link to copyrighted material without permission could shut down even the most popular social media sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. So, though the bill was meant to protect companies, individuals and their private content, the inadvertent consequence borders on censorship, causing quite the uproar.

Wikipedia blackout

Google blackoutTwitPic blackout

Mozilla blackout

Wordpress blackout

The Blackout

In protest of the bills, many popular sites “blacked-out” yesterday, January 18th. However, only a few actually had the guts to cease use of their site for the entire day. Wikipedia was one of them. If trying to ”wikipedia” anything yesterday, searchers only saw a page dedicated to stopping the legislation from passing, with a note titled “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.”

Many other popular sites like Google, TwitPic, Mozilla, WordPress, ICanHasCheezburger, UrbanSpoon and more had some form of stand-out message when users visited their sites, urging them to contact Congress regarding the bills.

Google even had blackout SEO advice for sites participating in the protest. They recommended inputting a 503 HTTP status code that would tell spiders the website was temporarily unavailable. This would cause the spiders to not index that site and therefore duplicate content from multiple blacked out pages would not be an issue. Google also slowed their bot crawlers yesterday to lessen the effects of the blackout on sites that did not implement the 503 status code.

SEM Consequences

As search engine marketers, we have some valid concerns for our clients. Say, for example, your client references copyrighted content of their competitor in a newsletter or review. According to the bill, your client could be immediately reprimanded if sought out by the content owner.  It would force advertising agencies to remove their client’s ads, search engines to remove their organic search result links, payment processors to halt all funds to the account and possibly ISPs to block the site completely; all within five days of the complaint. Your client then has seven days to explain the copyright infringement. Only then can the search engine, likely dealing with many other similar complaints, reinstate your client’s ads and organic links. This opportunity cost of lost impression-share, clicks, visits, conversions, etc. in the time it takes to resolve the issue would be a huge hit to any size SEO or PPC account.


Partially due to yesterday’s protests, several supporters have withdrawn their sponsorship of the controversial bills. Their reason being, as said by former sponsor Sen. Marco Rubio, “…congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences.” Also earlier this month, authors of SOPA and PIPA removed the writing in the bill that let ISPs block the domains of the infringing sites.

As of now, PIPA will come to a vote on January 24th and SOPA’s markup is set to resume in February. As shown by today’s Wikipedia thank-you message, I am sure we will continue to see everyone from individuals to large companies protesting this heavy legislation until a final vote is made, and beyond.

Wikipedia thank you blackout

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  • Sunshine McWhinney

    Thank you for such a clear explanation of the two bills in question, and why it is important to join in the fight against censorship!