Bookseller WH Smith made the news at the beginning of the week after it was revealed that highly unsavoury content was available from the company’s online store. But WH Smith didn’t simply take the offending content offline, they removed their entire website.
Days later, the site remains AWOL and several commentators are criticising the retailer for the negative effect that their decision is having on their online marketing campaign. It has even been suggested that businesses lacks a fundamental understanding of digital marketing and e-commerce.
But David Cobourne, one of the SEO executives here at HitSearch argues that WH Smith were right to take the site down in the short term.
He said: "They were correct in taking the site down. The most important thing to WH Smith is not just their online sales operation but the reputation of their brand. We have to take into account that WH Smith is still a largely High Street operation rather than online retailer and as such they would not want any cross infection from their online trade to the high street; especially as they do a lot of trade with school books and school equipment.
"They have never been one of the larger online operations, in comparison with Amazon etc and if the site is down for a short period the long term effects should be minimal.
"As this site has been down for a number of days, however, it points to weaknesses in the website management, they should be able to take down all the products they wanted to quite quickly so the fact they are still down points to an inability to do this effectively."
For Stuart Brandwood, another member of the HitSearch SEO team, the incident highlights the dangers to top retailers of allowing self-published content.
Stuart explained: "The web has opened up the world of publishing to anyone with an internet connection and this was always going to be a double-edged sword. The sort of PR disaster that WH Smith are currently dealing with is undoubtedly something we will see again in the future.
"Online retailers were never meant to be censors and proof-readers. This was, perhaps, always a naive approach when opening their marketplaces to allow anyone and everyone to publish.
"It was adult literature that sparked their current problems, but when you are publishing to a world-wide audience, you are always taking a risk; since one man's ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ is another's ‘Anarchist Cookbook’."
David added: "[WH Smith] have a partnership with ebook retailer Kobo, which feeds products through to the WH Smith store. They have to have confidence that Kobo are able to filter out such results.
"This is a more complicated matter than just removing products from their own website. As the issue seems to have been self published ebooks through Kobo, WH Smith will expect systems to be implemented by Kobo to filter these out. This would take a structural change in how Kobo operates. This may explain the length of time that the WH Smith site has been down.”
When online retailers take down their site, they affect much more than their SEO campaign. Remarketing, or retargeting, is a popular online marketing strategy but like PPC ads they will be left with nowhere for users to click through to.
The message is that if retailers need to take down their site, it isn’t the end of the world, but they should look to reinstate it as soon as possible.