Three Strikes: UK Retailer WHSmith’s Digital Visibility Issues

The retail sector provides us with a daily newsreel of digital struggles. In the UK, traditional brands, many over 100 years old, have already suffered and lost. House of Fraser, Woolworths, Toys “R” Us and Tesco’s stories are well-documented but today we’re going to take a look at the history, and a developing story of one of the oldest surviving retail shops in the UK. visibility history UK

WHSmith started life 227 years ago as a news-stall. The company created the first ever retail chain, the International Book Numbering System and the first cable TV channel in the UK. Our data doesn’t go back to 1792 but over the last 10 years we’ve chronicled the search visibility of on a weekly basis. There are three important events that stand out: A public relations event, a Google event and an event of WHSmith’s own making. The latter two issues have had big, negative impacts on search visibility during 2019.

2013 – Automated content causes PR nightmare

The first big change occurred in 2013 when around 50% of search visibility was lost. By using the directory analysis feature in the SISTRIX Toolbox and rolling back in time to 30.09.2013 we can see a lot of changes in directory-level visibility. The reason? A porn-content scandal that hit the press the week before. WHSmith had been carrying, un-curated, the Kobo ebooks library and had to react quickly to undesired content. 

SEO directory analysis directories shut-down after the Kobo ebook problem.

At least 3 directories were immediately shut down and transferred to a new home under /dept. We’ll come back to those directories later in the story but as you can see in yellow, above, much momentum was lost.

2019 – March Core Update

In Jan 2019, over 5 years later, finally returned to the visibility it had seen in 2013. Two months later it was hit by the first Google Core Update of the year. Over the following weeks it lost 40% of visibility.

Analysing the March Core Update

By taking the same analytical approach as we did for our recent Daily Mail study, we see that, like the Mail Online, there’s only one host containing the main ranking content ( and within that, losses across directories were shared equally. Drilling down into lost keywords also reveals a range of ‘intentions’ and SERP builds. Even the number of losses across SERPs pages seem to be spread evenly.  One example is the search term “buy a book”:

WHSMith ranking for buy a book

The ranking history grah above shows WHSmith ranking well, up until March 2019. Let’s take a look at the SERP for ‘buy a book’ to see if there are hints as to what has happened.

Example SERP

The SERP just before the March update showed a ‘do’ (formerly known as transactional) search intent. WHSmith is not out-of-place in this SERP.

A SERP result

Two weeks after the start of the March Core update, much of the SERP remains the same. WHSmith is not to be seen, and has only been seen once, in the top 100, since then.

It would appear that the domain lost rankings without leaving many hints about why. One external factor may, or may not be important to this chapter of the story:

WHSmith finishes bottom in Which? high street shops survey 2019

Source: Which?

Which? is a long-standing, well- recognised consumer product testing and advice organisation, registered as a charity in the UK. We took a closer look at this ‘best’ and ‘worst’ report last year and found that user opinion didn’t always match Google’s opinion.

2019 – June relaunch

On the 12th June 2019, just one week after the June 2019 Core Update, WHSmith launched a new website design. As part of the change, new content directories were introduced, including the old /books directory that had been previously abandoned. The results, so far, haven’t been positive.

WHSMith relaunch visibility

It’s far too early to do a detailed analysis on the results or to predict the outcome. One URL we will be watching, however, is the most valuable that WHSmith had.

WHSMith high value URL
The most visible URL on the domain

For nearly 5 years the URL leading to ‘folders’ has been strong among “a4 folders”, storage and binder-related keywords. Today, the URL has changed, along with the content. The redirected URL’s visibility can be seen, in green. on the right of the graph above.


Sometimes, business decisions don’t help SEO. WHSmith had a serious PR issue to deal with in 2013 and the actions taken on the website had serious impact on search visibility. We saw the same with Tesco Direct (70% of visibility lost) last year.

Core Updates are difficult to analyse. WHSmith were hit in March 2019 with a site-wide, directory-wide, keyword-wide and intent-wide reduction in visibility which makes it even more difficult to analyse the cause.

Site relaunches come with risks. Changing site design, site content and site architecture at the same time, however, will create a big, and expensive task for Google.

WHSmith have been on the UK streets for over 200 years and they are still here today in both ‘bricks and mortar’ and digital format. Their digital visibility trend for 2019 is currently very negative but recent changes to their website will need to play-out with Google before this chapter can be assessed.

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