WHSmith took its entire website offline yesterday after it found that pornographic eBooks were available through its Kobo e-reader.

Customers trying to access WHSmith.co.uk are greeted with a holding page which states that the retailer is “disgusted by these particular titles” and is taking immediate steps to have them removed.

While this process is on-going the site has been taken offline ‘to best protect our customers and the public’. It will come back online once all self-published eBooks have been removed and WHSmith’s is sure that people can no longer access the material.

There was understandable anger that shoppers were exposed to explicit content when they typed ‘daddy’ into its on-site search tool, however it does seem something of an over-reaction to take its website offline in order to fix the problem.

Amazon and Waterstones were also found to be stocking similar titles, and while they’ve expressed shock that the situation has occurred they haven’t taken the same drastic steps as WHSmith.

At a time when many companies are undergoing a period of digital transformation to try and modernise their business processes, WHSmith’s actions suggest that it still has very little understanding of ecommerce and digital marketing.

I spoke to a couple of digital experts to find out more about how taking the site offline will impact WHSmith and what it says about the company’s attitude towards ecommerce.

I’ll also write a follow up post tomorrow looking at the wider implications of this for WHSmith’s ecommerce platform…

How will this impact WHSmith’s SEO?

Stephen Croome, founder of First Conversion:

There will not be much in the way of impact. As @willwynne suggested, it will acquire a number of links from this. The links it receives from national and international press will far outweigh any short-term negatives. 

Ironically it is probably the best PR WHSmith could have had before Christmas – now it has a ton of fresh high quality links and a lot of brand mentions.

Dan Barker, E-business consultant:

It’s worth keeping in mind through this that:

  • This is the start of WHSmith’s busy period – its Christmas sales begin to ramp up in September.
  • This is the big period for books. Last Thursday is what’s known as ‘Super Thursday’ in the book trade, where all of the publishers put out their biggest books (more than 1,500 were released in the UK last Thursday).

Firstly, it’s very good that WHSmith has shown it’s serious about fixing the issue as the content was truly, truly dreadful, and it needed to fix it quickly. 

It’s also worth noting up front that it’s easy to miss the point here and say “well it had to protect its customers”, or “it had to protect the company reputation”, or “perhaps the CMS didn’t allow the team to fix it”. 

All of those are obstacles that could have been overcome and keeping the site live would have allowed WHSmith to protect its reputation and their customers far better. 

From an SEO point of view – ignoring the fact that there were much better options than pulling the entire site down – WHSmith has sort of done the right thing at a very granular tactical level. It has set up a 503 ‘temporarily unavailable’ status on the holding page and all of the original pages have been replaced with the holding message at their original URL, without redirecting them elsewhere.

From that point of view, when the holding page is removed, things should go back to normal.

Of key importance is how long the site is down. Once the site has been unavailable for a long period, search engines will begin to remove pages from search results. 

The brand itself should bounce back fairly quickly for that, but generic terms are much more competitive, and likely to be a little slower. Especially as search engines will need to recrawl the site to find out that the pages are back.

Taking the site offline also means the retailer has no means to control what appeared if anyone searched ‘wh smith’ in search engines. Pretty bad when you consider this was what you saw if you did that:

How should WHSmith have dealt with the problem?

Stephen Croome:

WHSmith could have avoided this whole scenario by building its systems and processes better in the first place and by paying more attention to what it is doing and assigning appropriate digitally literate resources to look after the site.

Firstly, when WHSmith built the site it should have checked how porn and other taboo words surfaced. 

We did this for Borders when we built the site and changed the book-surfacing algorithm to push taboo and porn stuff out of search results, in a similar manner to how Google deals with porn site queries – no suggestions, only show the site or book if the exact name is searched for.

Secondly, it looks like WHSmith relies on the tags from incoming feeds to power page results, a system that leaves you wide open to exactly this kind of situation when titles are mistagged and when you rely on third parties to do your tagging.

Thirdly, as these books come in via a feed from a publisher, it should be able to cut the feed if necessary and manually remove the titles without taking down the entire site.

Fourthly, this should have been flagged up immediately to the people who are marketing this site and looking after its analytics and SEO.

The Daily Mail reported finding 60 questionable titles. These should be easy to just manually remove from the site.

Dan Barker:

WHSmith should of course have pulled down all offensive content as soon as humanly possible. There was some truly awful stuff and having missed it up until the point where customers noticed – it needed to react quickly. 

It may have been that was not straightforward in its CMS. If that’s the case, WHSmith could have used htaccess files, redirects, or used another system to simply block access to the offensive content.

If that was a pain, it could even have cheated using an A/B test tool, or some other system to suppress nasty content at the point someone tried to view it. Finally, if WHSmith did feel it insurmountable, it could have pulled the Kobo content temporarily, even wiped the Kobo feed temporarily if required, and left the rest.

From a purely business perspective, WHSmith is losing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands per day by pulling the site down. 

If it is willing to take that kind of financial hit, please keep the site live and donate profits to rape crisis centres or sexual abuse support services or offer the equivalent in Christmas gifts to childrens homes/hospitals. It’s actually quite depressing to think of the positive difference it could have made there, instead of pouring the money into a black hole by shutting up shop.

What does this say about WHSmith’s understanding of ecommerce and digital marketing?

Stephen Croome:

The CEO Stephen Clarke used to be head of marketing for WHSmith and Argos, which just goes to show that traditional marketers should not be allowed to run bricks-and-mortar companies which need to transition to digital. 

He is advocating opening new outlets in railway stations and putting post offices in his stores. This just shows that his focus is on short-term cash and ignores the long-term need to become a truly digital company.

As a business, WHSmith is not focused on digital. It is a dinosaur of a website with a digital strategy that looks like the ugly stepsister to Amazon’s Cinderella.

Dan Barker:

It feels like one of those things where this has come down from the top, so it probably doesn’t say a huge amount about the team who actually handle the website and online marketing. 

If WHSmith had no mechanism for easily pulling these products, it says something about the company’s investment in tools and resources there.

It’s fairly rare now that a site doesn’t have a decent level of control over its own stock, even when there are marketplace/third party integrations.

It may say something about the size of WHSmith’s ecommerce team if it was simply a resource issue that this wasn’t spotted earlier and that a solution couldn’t be found when the problem was flagged up by third parties.

But the biggest issue seems to be with the company’s leadership and strategic focus – perhaps WHSmith’s doesn’t have anyone high up in the organisation that understands how the web works and ecommerce works. Perhaps then this would have been spotted earlier and fixed without taking the site offline.

WHSmith splits its business into ‘Travel’ (train stations, airports, etc.) and ‘High Street’, both in terms of strategy and in terms of its financial reporting. 

In other words, there’s no strategic importance placed online, and WHSmith may still see it as a minor part of the business. A big shame, as it is in a great position to push that and to use it to bolster the travel and high street businesses. 

And quite strange too – as it seemed to be doing some more forward-thinking things with the Kobo partnership, and with FunkyPigeon which it owns.