As many of you will be aware by now, WHSmith took its website offline on Sunday after it discovered that pornographic eBooks were available through its Kobo e-reader.

While the material was undoubtedly unacceptable and needed to be taken offline, it did seem like an over-reaction to pull down the entire website. What’s even more surprising is that two days later the site still isn’t back online.

Yesterday we published a post discussing WHSmith’s decision, including the impact on its SEO, alternative courses of action and what it says about the business’ understanding of digital marketing and ecommerce.

And as the site is still offline there’s more to be said in terms of the wider implications for WHSmith’s digital marketing initiative and the long term impact on the brand.

Here’s what e-business consultant Dan Barker had to say on the matter...

Aside from SEO, how will this impact WHSmith's broader ecommerce and digital marketing initiatives?

There are a number of things to consider:


Something WHSmith (sadly) got completely wrong is the Google Analytics setup on the holding page. James Royal-Lawson spotted a fairly epic mistake there.

Here are the key lines:

  _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-XXXXXXX']);

  _gaq.push(['_setAllowHash', false]);



The 'UA-XXXXXXX' line there should have been replaced with an account ID. Because WHSmith has forgotten to replace that, it will have no stats at all through Google Analytics for the period the holding page is live. That also of course means it can't understand the longer term effects this has had on visitors who hit the site while it was down.

Alongside that, if it were working, a couple of lines down the coding tells Google Analytics to record the page as 'holdingpage', meaning that WHSmith would have no idea which actual URLs users had been trying to view. 

And finally (and least importantly), the 'trackPageLoadTime' line is about three years out of date - it's old code that Google Analytics will simply ignore. 

The second two issues there are dwarfed by the first though, which is quite an unfortunate error. And that in turn, is dwarfed by the fact that WHSmith has chosen to pull the site down in the first place.


The second area this affects is affiliates. WHSmith's affiliate program has a 3.76% conversion rate, and offers between 2%-10% commission depending on the product category sold. 

It's a fairly popular program, and no doubt used by lots of affiliates. By doing this, any affiliate sending clicks to WHSmith’s site is literally losing money.

The holding page doesn't have any affiliate code sitting on it, so even if shoppers return later to buy, the affiliate still won't get their contractually agreed share of revenue.

Other marketing

Aside from those areas, it affects numerous other marketing channels. For example, if WHSmith is running any remarketing it puts a hole in that. If it has an abandoned basket program, anyone clicking through from there hits a dead end. 

If it is doing any email marketing, that's another dead end for anyone clicking through. If it’s running any PPC, there's usually a re-ramp-up period once you switch things back on after something like this.


Last Thursday was the biggest day of the year for publishers, with 1,500 new books released. As a result, there were piles of PR, ads and newspaper coverage over the weekend for this season's biggest books. 

All of that drives extra search interest and online traffic for those books. It's a shame that WHSmith has shut up shop at this point of the year, and if I were a publisher I would not be very happy. 

There's also a slightly crazy note in the holding page stating the retailer "will not display any self-published material until we are completely confident that inappropriate books can never be shown again". I can't imagine self-published authors find that too agreeable, and it can't help Kobo in their battle against Kindle.


Of course, WHSmith's customer base is the group most affected by this.

I imagine the percentage of customers who would want to buy the disgusting stuff that prompted them to pull the site down is as close to zero as you can possibly get, meaning they've shut the service for the 100% of customers wanting to buy normal stuff are unable to. 

Aside from money, that's a big customer service issue, and very annoying for anyone trying to purchase, to check order tracking or order history, or simply to find out opening times.


Phil MacKechnie did a bit of back-of-envelope calculating and figured that WHSmith makes around £680,000 per day online, assuming that 20% of its business is there. Even if that were out by a large factor, it's a big amount, especially when you note that shutting the site likely hands a lot of that money directly to its competitors. 

And worse still when you consider the exact timing at the start of the Christmas period, and during the weekend after most publishers launched their big titles.

How could WHSmith’s have handled the apology differently?

In my opinion, from a tactical point of view WHSmith should have done something like:

  1. Put a really large apology letter on the homepage, explaining exactly what had happened, why, and how it's fixing the issue.
  2. Run that as an ad in a couple of national papers too.
  3. Run a prominent sitewide notice fairly high up on every page, for those who enter on pages other than the homepage.
  4. Added a large 'report this product' button onto every product detail page.
  5. Included a simple 'feedback' survey across the site to gather feedback about this issue and WHSmith's response to it, but also general feedback on the site itself.
  6. Placed brand PPC ads so that they'd appear above any negative news stories.
  7. Perhaps: Switched the homepage title tag, or meta description of the homepage temporarily to reference the apology.
  8. Monitored the site for any spikes in direct traffic to particular product pages, or social traffic to product pages, to help isolate any awful material it had missed.

How will this impact WHSmith in the long run?

The company’s share price had been at a 10-year high last week. It will be interesting to see if this triggers any sort of blip either now, or as a knock-on further down the line of revenue lost as a result of this. 

Lots of the effect will be hidden though, such as affiliates who shrug their shoulders and stop promoting the retailer; loyal customers who went to Amazon instead and then buy from Amazon again in a couple of weeks having rejuvenated the relationship; publishers or self-published authors whose trust in WHSmith is eroded a little, etc.

With a bit of luck, having made this mistake will be good for the business in the long run. Almost 10 years ago Dell had a customer disaster known as 'Dell Hell' that spurred the company into focussing more on service/social media/etc., and though it was a mess at the time it helped Dell immeasurably in the long run by showing it had really needed to invest and work differently. 

My hope is that this causes WHSmith to invest and focus, rather than to pull back still further from the web.

David Moth

Published 15 October, 2013 by David Moth

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

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Comments (3)

Philip Storey

Philip Storey, Founder & Principal Consultant at Enchant Agency

Great overview.

It is probably worth mentioning that the UX of this page could have been a lot better - where's the logo? Copy is also poor, with some jargon and poor grammar.

Perhaps it was these two things that lead you to look a little deeper in the first place.

Thanks for the article!

almost 5 years ago


Colin Watson

Thanks, excellent review.

No 8 of your recovery tips (Monitored the site for any spikes...) should also be used during normal operation to identify unusual traffic. Anomalies may indicate problems - self-inflicted or otherwise. More widely, attack detection is one of the best forms of defence.

almost 5 years ago



WhSmith will be liable to customer law suits because they can claim that they were made insane due to reading sexually charged material on WHSmith website.
Do you reckon as the same logic as UK government applies to its citizens that watching porn is making them crazy in there heads. And people who visited the website and saw these books were made sexual predators and they might cause rape or idecent assault due to the online books fiasco at WH smith.

over 4 years ago

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