Companies in the UK are going into administration on a daily basis here in the UK and very little attention is being paid to the websites during the administration process. In most cases the website is taken over by the administrators and the staff who have been working on the site are either made redundant or don’t have chance to explain how it should be handled.

Administrators are normally working to try and find a buyer for the troubled company so you would expect them to treat the website (which is often one of the companies biggest sources of income) with a little care and attention. As we’ve seen in recent weeks quite the opposite is true and in most cases the online presence couldn’t have been handled any worse.

Below is the definitive guide to what administrators should be doing when they take over the running of a companies website.

Turn off the shopping cart

Most administrators seem to think that all website traffic comes via the homepage and that they can put a message on there and everybody will stop using the shopping cart. This is totally incorrect – people arrive to product pages and buy products from there and in a lot of cases recently the shopping cart has still happily accepted orders even when the homepage says orders can’t be fulfilled.

If the company is no longer able to trade then turning off the shopping cart should be step 1.

Add an SEO friendly error message to the site

This step is very important to get right and is quite technical. The two key aspects are as follows:

  • Inform customers of the situation
  • Preserve search engine trust & rankings

Every page on the site needs to return a 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable HTTP status code in the same way as you would if your site was undergoing temporary downtime. The example below tells Googlebot to retry after a week.

header("HTTP/1.1 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable");
header("Status: 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable");
header("Retry-After: 604800");

Once you have served this code on every page of the site the pages can be altered to contain a message to customers. This message needs to be accurate and informative. The statement Woolworths website gives is not acceptable:

Our site is currently undergoing essential maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Please check back later.

Inform affiliates

If the company has an affiliate program then an email needs to be sent out straight away informing them of the situation. Affiliates are likely spending money on PPC campaigns and will be very upset if they waste a lot of money without getting paid for the sales generated.

Turn off PPC campaigns

You would be amazed at how many companies keep PPC campaigns running after they go into administration. If orders can’t be fulfilled then why pay for traffic to the site?

Keep people updated

If the situation changes or new information becomes available then why not add it to the website and keep loyal customers informed? Maintaining customer loyalty is paramount if the company is to be sold to a new owner.

Some examples

Comet no longer ranks in the top 200 for washing machines, cookers or dishwasher where it did rank p1 before. It could well be that some of the rankings have transferred to the new subdomain which search metrics hasn’t picked up at the moment, but unfortunately Google is already losing trust in the domain.

We’ll keep an eye on the situation so keep coming back for regular updates.

Yesterday it was announced that Comet is to go into administration due to the fact that private equity firm, OpCapita, has not been able to find a buyer to take on the high street brand it was unfortunately unable to salvage. But what now for the digital arm of the Comet brand?

When a company goes out of business, the main priority is staff, then perhaps selling stock or retail property to recover as much of the company’s debt as possible. But all too often in takeovers, buyouts or mergers, little thought seems to be given to how valuable the digital assets can be for a new buyer.

A website is not just a series of pages, products and a back end powering the site’s mechanisms – it also has subscriber lists, optimised PPC campaigns, images, quality unique content, user reviews, and, what I want to discuss here, Google rankings.

As an SEO, I know how hard it is to get Google to trust your site, love your links and put you in front of searchers: it’s DAMN HARD. But equally, it’s pretty easy for Google to lose trust in your site. If you happen to block the site in robots.txt, you’ll pretty soon see major ranking issues, and ultimately this can have a longer-term impact.

Similarly, if you build a load of spam links, Google will pretty soon catch up with you and penalise your site, which will then see you having to spend months removing all those spam links and waiting for Penguin to refresh before Google loves you enough to trust your site again.

As I write this post, is currently “unavailable” and has been since yesterday afternoon. This may well be planned maintenance, but if the administrators are putting this page up to prevent anyone from buying more products on the site, Google is very quickly going to start losing trust in the site and drop some rankings.

The site’s administrators are currently using a 302 HTTP header response, whereas they would actually be better using a 503 error so that Google will come back at a later date to re-crawl the site.

You can see from the screen shot below that Comet has some pretty great rankings, p1 for washing machines, cookers, cheap TV, dishwasher, LED TV and more, as well as some good top ten rankings for iPad and TV-related terms. If Google loses trust in the site, those rankings won’t last long.

But what can the administrator do? OK, they want to stop people buying more goods until the retailer is a little more secure, but a 302 is only a short term solution.

The site needs to carry on trading so that user engagement signals remain, and other ranking signals keep Google interested in the site.

The next thing they need to do is look for a buyer. This is going to be a great bargain for some lucky electrical retailer if they want it. Yes, they can run it as it is, but personally, I’d love to have it and redirect it properly into my own established brand site and steal all those links and rankings.

Currys did this recently with Dixons, another UK-based electrical retailer. The company redirected the Dixons site and has since enjoyed a bit of boost in the rankings. However, personally, I don’t think Currys has done this in the very best way possible, simply because they’ve just redirected the entire site to the homepage.

Currys would have been much better off mapping all the URLs and redirecting relevant product pages with good rankings to similar product pages on its own site.

This method would have achieved a much larger impact in that the rankings for those specific product or category pages are likely to have been transferred to the relevant pages and they could have immediately seen some massive movements in the rankings.

OK, Google would have eventually caught up and reduced some of these positions, but by that time Currys would have made improvements, moved some of the users and links over, and, more importantly, made some money in the process – and rankings would still be great.

There is, of course, the possibility that something might have gone wrong and that some pages might not have been mapped properly or the link profile for Dixons could have been particularly poor, but if done meticulously, this could have been a massive opportunity.

There are some other good examples this year of sites that have gone into administration and lost some decent ranking positions as a result.

Example 1:

JJB Sports went into administration on 30 September with rankings having struggled since. There was a bit of a spike during the weeks prior to administration as people talked about and linked to the brand, but rankings have since been hit and the site has not returned to its previous best.

Example 2:

Firetrap went into administration on 19 March but it was quickly bought up by Sports Direct. You can see a brief drop in its rankings during this time, probably because the site was returning an error. However, the site has quickly recovered and even improved, probably as a result of people talking about the site and linking during the news stories, and perhaps also as a result of corporate links from Sports Direct.

So what now for Comet?

I really feel for all the 6,500 people whose jobs are reportedly at risk, but the administrator needs to quickly find a buyer for the website as well as the other assets.

For someone who wanted to take on the digital arm of the business, the website is a really well-established site that could command a lot of trust from Google and retain some good ranking positions.

But for someone else who has their own established site that’s working well and has good ecommerce sales, mobile sales, CRO, a decent link profile and more besides, then this is perhaps a good chance to go completely against Google’s guidelines and “buy” a load of links!

It will be interesting to see what happens with the site and whether or not the administrators are able to get on top of things quickly, but I wish I had a few million to spare – would be a great site to own.

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