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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.

David Moth

Published 14 October, 2013 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

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

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Comments (18)

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Edwyn Raine

Edwyn Raine, Digital Strategist at Evolution 7

WHSmith's online business must be a loss leader anyhow, they are an archaic business which would have gone the same way as Woolworth's if it had not been for their dominance of market in train stations and service stations.
It is a shame, as they are a great British brand name which lacks guidance.

almost 3 years ago

Jonathan Waddingham

Jonathan Waddingham, Social & Labs Product Manager at JustGiving

One thing neither of the commentators have picked up on is the incredibly poorly written English in the statement. There's at least one typo and the grammar is terrible. But the lack of understanding of digital is particularly evident by the fact they have hyphenated the word "off-line".
This does look like something that has come down the top and there's probably a very sad digital marketing manager somewhere sat shaking their head in dismay. Poor guy/gal.

almost 3 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

Agreed, Jonathan, the centred bolded grey text another bit of a giveaway. The digital equivalent of a comic sans a4 printout in the newsagent window.

They've made the 'contact us' text bright red this morning, so someone's obviously paying a tiny bit of attention, even if they didn't fix the big typo! (they haven't fixed the Google Analytics code on the page either - a tragedy - it's currently knackered, as picked up by James Royal Lawson)

almost 3 years ago

Jonathan Waddingham

Jonathan Waddingham, Social & Labs Product Manager at JustGiving

Yes, the design's not likely to feature on dribbble anytime soon. Good spot about the analytics code, maybe it's a deliberate move to enable them to plead ignorance when someone asks "how many people saw our rubbish statement".
Or probably it's just another bit of broken website. Still, nice to see they're advertising their partners in the source code. Including one they might need themselves... "Whatever your situation, you can save time and money with DIY Legal Forms."

almost 3 years ago

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Ben Goodwin

I'd just like to pick up on a couple of things said by Stephen Croome here which are unfair, unfounded and don't really have much place in a serious article.

1. "Fourthly, WHSmith obviously does not have any competent digital marketers looking after the site"

2. "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."

I'm not sure why he feels the need to trash every member of the marketing team at WH Smith here - I presume Stephen feels the same about Amazon's marketing team, seeing as they sold the same books? I mean, of course an isolated incident means the 100s of members of staff at the world's largest online retailer are incompetent!

Stephen Clarke is pretty much brand new to the CEO position, but he's occupied very senior positions since 2004. When he joined, their share price was under half that it was now and I'm going to go ahead and assume to have got the top gig he must be credited by the shareholders as having delivered them a large amount of that fantastic return. Given that his job is to deliver maximum value to the shareholders and they've seen a good return on their investment since he's joined the company, it's grossly unfair to make such a sweeping statement.

In fact, given the typical age of a CEO, it's likely that most of them started their career in offline markets. John Lewis's CEO Andy Street has been with the company all his career - not hiring someone from "digital" doesn't seem to have held them back...

almost 3 years ago

Mike Essex

Mike Essex, Marketing & Comms Manager at Petrofac

As a self published author I find it disgusting that they've chosen to never stock another self published book as a result of this. Given that they are more than happy to stock WOOL (one of the best selling self-published titles ever that is now doing great things in print) this seems like a remarkable double standard.

Also I don't see how going back and removing the offensive titles will solve their issue. There are plenty of adult novels and titles that they stock which will still come up in searches. Unless they fix their internal search this is just a pointless band-aid of a fix that has only resulted in making self published authors look like idiots and get labelled with the blame. Thanks WHSmith.

almost 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

It's an utterly bizarre response, and clearly some sort of knee-jerk reaction. No-one would expect WHSmith to do anything other than remove the offending titles, so this is nuts.

Even odder is the fact that the site is still offline. How long does it take to remove the titles?

@Mike I see your point, though I think they're just trying to distance themselves as far as possible from these ebooks.

almost 3 years ago

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Duncan Heath

I think Jonathan is probably right about there being an exasperated digital manager somewhere, wondering how his or her seniors could have been so ignorant to push through such an unconsidered response to this problem.

@Dan - not sure I get what you mean when you say "pouring the money into a black hole by shutting up shop". This money would have gone somewhere (or stayed where it was for the time being), but it certainly wouldn't have been wasted in a black hole. Perhaps Amazon should donate the money it gets from extra trade to charity?

almost 3 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

@Duncan: Thanks for the comment, though it's slightly weird that you've chosen to take umbrage at the suggestion of giving money to rape crisis centres as an alternative to refusing to take any money. Though I'm sure that's not the spirit in which you intended the comment.

It was poor wording on my part. I was using the metaphor in the 'ultradense former star' sense rather than suggesting financial irregularity. But from the way you use the phrase I'm not sure that's what you mean.

It was a simple metaphor to illustrate that they have no idea where the money is going, other than knowing it is not arriving via their online checkout as it would every other day of the year. They've obviously shut down the site to protect their reputation. I was suggesting an alternate approach they could have taken to achieve that objective, while simultaneously achieving the twin objectives of 1) doing something fairly objectively positive; 2) continuing to serve their customers.

Worth noting not everything I said was printed. Feel free to give me the benefit of your doubt if you like :)

I hope all's well with you!

dan

almost 3 years ago

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Jennifer R. Povey

Taking down the site was bad enough.

As for how long it takes to remove the titles: This has resulted in thousands of self published authors AND a number of small presses losing access not just to W.H. Smith's site but also to the UK Kobo site. Books have been blocked regardless of their contact - children's and YA authors have been affected by this.

They are not just removing the offending titles. They really are removing ALL self published content from the site - as well as perfectly legitimate publishers who happen to use certain distribution services.

My own books have been removed from kobo.uk because of this, so I admittedly have a personal stake in the matter - and it does not serve their customers to remove hundreds of thousands of perfectly okay books in order to get rid of a tiny number that might qualify as obscene. It certainly does not serve their vendors.

almost 3 years ago

Jonathan Waddingham

Jonathan Waddingham, Social & Labs Product Manager at JustGiving

In an act that seems to suggest they want to prove your article right, they have now tweeted said statement line by line: https://twitter.com/lakey/status/390086429499723776
Oh, and changed the email link from red to blue on their site. But kept the typo.
I can only offer sympathy now.

almost 3 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

Whilst understanding that they would want to remove the offending titles it does seem an over reaction to remove all self published works. A bit like saying there are bad books out there, let's ban all books.

If I were a shareholder I'd also be worried that the site is still offline (19:15 15 Oct as I type). Are their systems so badly put together that they can't kills some content without killing it all.

As a business I'm surprised that it hasn't gone the same way as Woolworth - I don't think this episode is going to help much.

almost 3 years ago

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James Royal-Lawson

It's an astounding way to handle the situation. I'm amazed. I'm even more amazed that today, Tuesday, the site is *still* down! That's *three days*. Incredible.

From a web management viewpoint, this case is in a league of it's own. So many interesting aspects to this story...

Yes, they've done a few things right (such as the 503 Service Unavailable) but it really shouldn't have come to this.

You can learn quite a lot about crisis management from this ongoing saga. I've put together a blog post with some reflections and tips
http://beantin.se/post/64101875557/crisis-web-management-whsmith

almost 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Still down. Wonder if they've decided to knock this ecommerce thing on the head...

almost 3 years ago

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Rob Walters

You have to admire the high risk strategy by WH Smith to boost KOBO sales this Christmas...

almost 3 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

I wonder if their website traffic has gone up since they took the site down. I never used their site but can't now resist going along to see if the site is back up (it's not). ;)

Maybe this is a new SEO tactic?

almost 3 years ago

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David Kohn

As someone who worked for WHSmith in various areas including the online team for several years, my initial reaction to this was amazement.
It may prove, however, to be an act of marketing genius. The website is not well visited and takes a far lower share of sales than you would imagine. Coverage of the incident has been huge by any normal retail standards - front page news and TV headlines - so the damage done by a few days offline may well be offset significantly by increased awareness and visitation.
Keep an eye on their traffic figures over the next few weeks.

almost 3 years ago

Richard Fullerton

Richard Fullerton, New River Marketing

Good article, very informative. I've been following WH Smith's marketing for a while now so if you're interested see my blog at my site New River Marketing. The Travel business is doing very well, that's where most of their profits come from. The High Street less so. So I think the strategy of expanding into smaller outlets in the travel segment is correct. But I agree, WH Smith should aspire to challenge Amazon and there's no reason it couldn't. It's just as big a brand in terms of perception and recall, and with a lot more history. Just smaller.

almost 3 years ago

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