How to blackout your website in an SEO-friendly way

Although there is no way to blackout a website fully risk-free, there are things you can do to minimize the threat and protect your SEO!

If you just came up with a million-dollar idea to blackout your website for whatever business or marketing-related reason, please keep reading…

Temporarily shutting down a website is always a risky idea. It may turn out costly, not only for a loss of profit during the blackout period but also makes you lose your hard-earned SEO visibility.

Besides a direct financial hit and technical difficulties, there are other less apparent long-term risks involved.

The main SEO risks are:

  • Delisting of website’s pages from Google Index when Google Bot meets an HTTP Status code other than 200
  • Lowering rankings when Google Bot detects duplicate content

There are, however, certain situations when publishers decide to blackout anyway, and take on the risk for a more important cause. Let’s look closer at one of them, check how it played out and if the SEO risks could be minimised.

The background — When politics meets SEO

In February 2021 the announcement was made that the Polish government was going to impose a new tax on media. Many of the publishers, fearing the loss of their independence, decided to protest by blacking out their websites, TV, and radio channels for 24 hours. Instead of the usual content, they would display an open letter arguing against the new law.

Homepage of tvn24.pl and onet.pl on the day of the protest

The protest, however bold and creative, wasn’t the first of its kind. Similar protests broke out as early as 1996 (Black World Wide Web protest) and in 2012 against internet regulations SOPA and PIPA in the United States followed by ACTA protests in the EU.

Polish media protest — SEO case study

On the day of the protest, many large websites decided to blackout for 24 hours. Although the idea was the same for every one of them, the media made use of different technical solutions to implement the change.

Let’s take a look at how 5 leading polish news websites carried it out:

1. interia.pl — Set up a site-wide 302 (temporary) redirect scheme to the homepage.

2. onet.pl — Put an overlay on the existing content (HTTP Status 200). Internal links were preserved. The original content was partly available in the code, but not through a client-side interface.

3. rp.pl — Only the protest letter’s content appeared on the homepage, no internal links. HTTP Status 200.

4. tvn24.pl — Set up HTTP Status 500 site-wide.

5. polsatnews.pl — First 404 Status site-wide, and later in the day got back to the 200 Status — yet with only the protest letter content on all pages. The original content wasn’t available.

Methods used by interia.pl and onet.pl seem natural and in-line with SEO good practices (at least as a short-term solution for 24h protest).

In contrast, a site-wide Status 500 (Internal Server Error) and 404 (Not Found) may be risky for they don’t inform indexing bots of an intentional and temporary character of the change.

Had Google Bot taken the Status Codes literally and acted on them at once, the websites may have suffered serious consequences and a massive drop in organic traffic.

Recommended solution

For the 24h blackout it’s best to use solutions designed especially for temporary events:

  • 503 HTTP status code (Service Unavailable)

When a similar protest took place in 2012 in the US (against SOPA and PIPA), Google recommended a 503 HTTP status code to tell spiders that the website is temporarily unavailable. The same recommendation we can find in Google Search Central documentation:

If you need to urgently disable the site for 1–2 days, then return an informational error page with a 503 HTTP result code instead of all content. Make sure to follow the best practices for disabling a site.

In another one of Google’s blog articles we can find the following information:

Googlebot will retry pages that return 503 for up to about a week, before treating it as a permanent error that can result in those pages being dropped from the search results.

503 Status is also commonly used for website maintenance.

  • 302 HTTP Status code (Found)

302 redirect is a code designed for situations where we need to temporarily send users to another page, but we don’t want Google to de-list the page nor to pass its “SEO link juice” to the redirect target (like we do with 301 redirects). It lets indexing bots know that the page, as well as its content, will be unchanged in the long-run.

Results

That’s it about theory.

Let’s take a look at how the websites that used different methods perform two weeks after the protest (black line):

Searchmetrics Research Cloud SEO Visibility — 5 news portals

Although some of the media used risky solutions…nothing bad happened. It appears they got away with it entirely.

Even tvn24.pl (used HTTP Status 500) and polsatnews.pl (used HTTP Status 404) didn’t take a hit in SEO visibility:

tvn24.pl main directories
polsatnews.pl main directories

However risky, the change was only temporary. 24 hours may have been not long enough to remove them from Google’s index or impair their ranking.

According to Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts:

If your website is down just for a day, such as your host being down or a server transfer, there shouldn’t be any negative impact to your search rankings.

Summary (tl;dr)

Blacking out the entire website is always a risky move and shouldn’t be done without an important reason. If you decide to do it anyway, you should take the best SEO practices into account.

The safest solutions are in my opinion

  • Use a 503 HTTP status code(recommended by Google)
  • Use a 302 HTTP Status code (temporary redirect)

As shown in the example of polish media protest, the publishers decided on many different technical solutions. Although some of them clearly weren’t the safest (from the SEO point of view), the media didn’t suffer a decrease in organic visibility.

This may be explained by the short duration of the protest. Google needs several checks to make sure the content is permanently gone before taking action. The ruling may apply especially to large websites with a long history and well-established SEO authority.

Further reading

Best practices for disabling a site

Closing down for a day

How To Blackout Your Site (For SOPA/PIPA) Without Hurting SEO

Matt Cutts: Short Website Downtime Won’t Hurt Your Search Rankings

HTTP Status Codes

503 Service Unavailable

302 Found

Thanks to Jeroen Kornegoor, Maria Tenningås and Grzegorz Strzelec

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