April 14th 2020

The toll of Coronavirus evolves each and every day, and now even digital businesses who seemed well-positioned to deal with the remote working and closing of physical outlets are feeling the strain. We will all have seen eCommerce sites warning us of delays to shipping to ensure workers comply with distancing regulation, and items are selling out as online shopping becomes the only way for some to get needed supplies. But what do you do if you are an eCommerce store and you cannot fulfil orders anymore?

It is tempting to take a website down as it costs money to keep it up. If you have no stock or ability to ship, then you incur this operating cost for no sales. But the damage you are doing to your brand and organic search rankings might well end up being far more costly than just your operating costs during this unusual period. We have some tips on how to deal with the surge you might be experiencing.

But first, let’s take a look at why it’s not a good idea to take your website down.

Why is it Bad?

As an eCommerce site owner you work hard to make sure content on your pages is easily discoverable for users browsing the web. So, after all that work, this is what will happen if you suddenly remove those pages:

  • The bots that scurry around your websites suddenly find virtual doors slammed in their faces.
  • Search engines will stop referring traffic to these pages as users cannot access them.
  • Your pages get marked as untrustworthy
  • Search results start going to your competitors instead.

Remember that search engines such as Google are trying to provide content which is most suited to their customer – the user. If your site gives users a bad experience because they cannot access it, it’s better to remove it from the rankings and maintain a good search experience. Google actually provide guidelines on what they look for in websites, so don’t go against these principals!

By letting your pages default to 404 and not giving users any other page to progress to, you increase your bounce rate (read about why this is a metric to track here). This is a signal that your content is not relevant to users, and so even when you bring your pages back up your domain is still associated with this high bounce rate. The worst-case scenario is that your website is delisted from search engines lists of relevant content, not something to take lightly.

It’s Organic

Think about how much effort you have put into your organic traffic, how much you have invested in your strategy. Taking down your website takes you back to the beginning, meaning your sales will not recover right away when the world returns to normal. And paid advertising might not make up the difference when you get going again, as 80% of users choose the first organic results over paid placement results.

In 2018 there was a US government shut down, meaning all of the departments took down their websites as they were not able to update information or service requests. Depending on how the website shut down was managed, some sites took weeks to get back to their previous ranking spots, others took months and even years. What was true of all sites, was that traffic to lower-ranking sites went up, as they served the users needs and so search engines moved them up the rankings. If you are an eCommerce store, that could be your competitor which is now the preferred search result.

Customer Experience

We have looked at how search engines want to protect their customer’s experience, but what about your customers? Taking down your website suddenly will damage your reputation with customers, leading them straight to your competitors to meet their needs.

Forget the buying phase for a second, and consider the exposure to your products the website gives, as well as educating and informing customers on their journey. Just because they can’t complete the sale does not mean that your website has not persuaded them to want to buy. Communicating the issues you are facing and being honest will keep them in your marketing funnel rather than kicking them out.

Online customers typically move between the following stages:

  • SEE – I am not aware of your product but it seems like something that I would like
  • THINK – I am considering your product and want to know more
  • DO – I want to buy your product
  • CARE –  I love your product and I want to tell everyone how great it is

So even though you might not be able to deliver on the DO phase, your website and content can still meet the needs of the customer by offering material that helps them to make the mind up about what they want. If your website is not there, they can’t move into the DO stage when you are ready to fulfil orders again.

What Can You Do?

If you are considering taking down your website and can’t fulfil orders, here are some tips for managing your website:

  • Alert users to your issues – Adding a banner on your home page, information on your help pages and notifications on any page you feel a user might need to know about your problems is a great way to maintain customer sympathy. If you are able to, be honest and explain the situation customers are more likely to still consider you when it comes to making their purchases later.

  • Emails – Send out an email to your existing database of customers explaining that you are struggling under the current conditions. This will help to manage the expectations of your customers, and also allow you to alert them when items they might be interested in are back in stock or you are able to start fulfilling orders again.

  • Product pages – You will still have product pages with details of the items you normally sell, so changing the status of the item to out of stock means customers know it is currently unavailable. You should also consider adding a “notify me when this item is available” option where the customer would be able to give you their email address to be updated on the availability of the item they were looking at. This will help to keep the customer in your marketing funnel and also kick start sales when you are able to operate normally again.

  • Remove add to cart – For some content management systems, this is not easy, and for other inventory systems it can cause issues with reporting. A solution for those with these issues is to use Google Optimise to hide add to cart buttons. This is cost-effective and very quick to implement.

  • Cancel paid ads – If you are running any kind of paid advertising through search engines, social media or other media, consider cutting these first. If you have configured your item availability with Google Merchant Centre, any item that is set to out of stock will automatically stop paid ad placement in google shopping results, but if you do not have this set up then you will have to take down any google ads individually. Cutting these costs will help you reduce your online operations spend, whilst maintaining a website so that organic traffic is not comprised.

  • Update your Google My Business – Google has created a special COVID-19 Post category so you can add changes to opening hours, disruptions or temporary closures. By taking advantage of this you can quickly communicate changes to customers looking for your services when Google returns your page as a result, and manage their expectations.

Some more technical solutions you can implement if you are really struggling to justify keeping your website up:

  • If you have to take your site down for a short period, you could change the status code of your page to 503 Service Unavailable. Make sure you add some information about why users are seeing this code return in their browser.

  • If you are taking the site down for longer periods, consider creating a new landing page that keeps the 200 indexable status so that organic traffic is still coming to your website and users are informed, but you can take the majority of the website offline.

  • Virtual queues – an increased load on your server can incur significant costs from your provider, so consider putting a virtual queue to limit the number of users than can access certain parts of the site in one moment. This will help manage your operating costs, just make sure you notify users why there is a wait, so you do not lose them.

  • Create pages with information about changes to operations and add the correct structured data. Schema.org have just announced that they have added new vocabulary to allow websites to identify pages with changing information during the coronavirus pandemic. You can now set the type of page to “@type:” “SpecialAnnouncement” so search engines know customers can get updates here. If you are organising an event and are changing how you are delivering your event then you can set your “eventAttendanceMode” to online, offline or mixed. Your data is also time stamped, so your most recent updates are returned in searches. If you need more information about structured data and schema, check out our information here.

Taking your website down as a gut reaction could have implications well beyond the disrupted trading period, and careful consideration around how you continue to service your customers and reduce your operating costs can help you get through the disruption.

Need Help?

If you’re not sure what to do considering your specific trading circumstances, then please get in touch. At Erudite we have worked with thousands of sites for over a decade, so have a good wealth of data and experience to guide your decisions.