17 Internet marketing disasters, and how to prepare for them

Ian Lurie

I am not an optimistic person.
So, I spend lot of time sitting around planning for whatever catastrophes might strike me and my clients as we carry out marketing campaigns.
Here’s a short list (yes, this is the short list) of the worst calamities and how I try to prevent them, or deal with them when they inevitably occur:

1. The typo

I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill typo. This is a case of stupid fingers that, oh, changes someone’s product name from ‘Colony Explorations’ to ‘Colon Explorations’.
The fix: A good proofing and editing workflow. Re-take that Mavis Beacon course. A little sense of humor can help, too: “All folks who can tell us what digestive organ was accidentally offered in our last e-mail gets 10% off”.
Prevention: The best way to prevention this kind of error is to make your site easy to fix. Have a good, simple content management system. Then, when it happens, you can fix it in seconds.

2. The incorrect ad URL

A pay per click ad (think Google AdWords) has been running for a week when you discover that, instead of pointing at your client’s dental web site, it’s pointing at a chocolate factory.
The fix: If you’re an internet marketing agency, give your client a refund. If you’re an in-house marketer, expect to be flayed, just a little bit. Crying helps.
Prevention: Check the URL before you go live. Click every URL before you launch. Looking at your stats helps, too: If Google says you paid for 500 clicks, but your traffic reporting tool says you got 0, something’s not right.

3. The botched update

A ‘patch’ you just installed to fix a security hole in your server or web site did just that. By taking the entire server offline. See? Now it’s safe!
The fix: What we call a ‘rollback’. An undo. CTRL-Z. If you didn’t exercise prevention (see below), go get some caffeine. It’s gonna be a long night.
Prevention: Reliable, effective backups, run daily. Even better, a spare server or a failover plan, if you have the money for one.

4. The rogue e-mail

Your carefully-designed, targeted e-mail designed for less than 3,000 members of your house e-mail list gets accidentally blasted to all 300,000.
The fix: Whatever you do, do not e-mail folks to apologize. The craptacular irony of this escapes most people. Put a profound apology up on the pages to which you link from the rogue e-mail. If folks contact you directly, reply with an apology. Apologize on your blog. Take responsibility, and never, ever, ever do it again.
Prevention: Watch that twitchy mouse finger.

5. The hijacked domain name

Your company is at abctech.com. You accidentally let it expire, and the day it does, some schmuck reserves it, parks 20 ads there and makes money off the clicks from folks who should be going to your site.
Chances are, he reserved it using a private listing service, so you can’t find out who they are to send them a nasty letter.
The fix: If you hold the trademark to your company name and/or have a long, long history with that company name, send a complaint to ICANN. It’s an involved process. But it’s worth the effort. Read up.
Prevention: Make sure your registrar’s expiration notices don’t end up in your spam folder – add their ‘from’ address to your address book. Even better, put the domain’s expiration date in your calendar, with a 60 day, 30 day and 14 day warning.

6. The lost traffic logs

Someone just deleted your entire Google Analytics account. All your data is gone. ACK.
The fix: Set up a new account and process your server log files using something like Urchin, which aren’t so easily deleted. Also grab all those monthly reports you did (right?!) so you still have the historical data.
Prevention: Most software-as-a-service analytics tools can auto-email you reports. Get those reports every day. Save them. Also: Make sure your server is generating log files for your site, that those files are backed up, and that they contain all visitor, page, referrer and user-agent data.

7. Site held hostage

Your contractor suddenly decides to take a 3-week vacation and neglects to tell you. Or (this really happened) the contractor pouts and sits on title tag updates for months at a time.
Now you can’t fix anything. You can’t change anything. You can’t even fill orders.
The fix: Contact the hosting provider and insist on access. Be persistent. If they balk, get your attorney on the line.
Prevention: At a minimum, you should have your hosting provider’s phone number and permission to change passwords via phone.

8. Site held hostage, 2

Your design or development firm insists that they own your site. When you try to hire a new firm, they refuse to turn over the current web site, or they totally cut off access.
The fix: Read your contract. Unless it explicitly states that the designer/developer owns it, the entire site is a work-for-hire created for you. You own it. If the contract does explicitly state they own it, you can probably fight it anyway.
Prevention: Read the contract before you sign it. The print’s small, and annoying, I know. Read it anyway. Look for a clause about ‘ownership’ or ‘intellectual property’. If it even implies you don’t own the completed work, feed the contract into the shredder.

9. The search engine ban

Everything’s humming along, then bam: Your site vanishes from the rankings. You don’t just move down – you’re gone.
Take a deep breath. Scream if you need to. It can relieve stress. Now, do the following:

  1. Do a search for your company name. Do you show up? Then you’re not banned. Skip the rest. If you didn’t appear, on to the next step:
  2. Search for your web address. Again, if you show up, you’re not banned. If not, then yeah, chances are you’ve been naughty and the search engines are punishing you.
  3. Call your SEO person. Ask her, in a quiet voice, to please for f–k’s sake figure out why you’ve been banned.
  4. If necessary, call another SEO and ask if you can buy an hour of their time to check the site, too.

The fix: Get rid of whatever caused the ban. File a reinclusion request with the search engine.
Prevention: Don’t use so-called ‘black hat’ tactics: Cloaking, massive link buying, redirection, hidden text, etc.. They’re short-term at best. Also, track your incoming links as seen by Google and Yahoo, and track your indexed pages. Sudden changes in either may signal trouble ahead.

10. Checkout checks out

Your credit card processor goes kerploiee (Authorize.net had this happen recently). Your site’s fine but you can’t process any orders.
The fix: Remove credit card authorization for now, and continue accepting orders without authorization. Post a note saying you’ll have to verify later.
Prevention: Ideally, have PayPal or Google Checkout (or both) set up as options, too. If the worst happens, customers can still use their credit cards.

11. The browser merry-go-round

Big Corporation releases their latest browser, which displays your site like a Picasso painting.
The fix: Get to work on your CSS.
Prevention: Stay abreast of new browsers. Download betas and test your site ahead of time. Follow CSS addicts like the folks at AListApart and SmashingMagazine. They breathe this stuff.

12. You send out the wrong coupon code

Oh, come ON people. This is the internet. Just change the code on your site, or add it. ’nuff said.

13. The cease and desist

Your new landing page or April Fool’s Day hoax attracted lots of attention. You just got a love letter from some behemoth of a corporation. Big Corporation threatens to burn you to the ground, then salt the lands upon which you worked, if you don’t immediately remove the offending page.
The fix: First, don’t panic. The worst case is you have to comply. Read the letter. Decide: Is this really worth a court fight? Probably not. Cease. Desist. Live to offend another day.
Prevention: Check your team for common sense. Those who lack it don’t get to write landing pages.

14. The screamer

A screamer is that one blog post or forum post that keeps showing up in the search results. Right under your listing. With ‘[your name] sucks’ or ‘[your name] fraud’ in the title.
The fix: A nice phone call to the writer might not be a terrible idea. They might remove their post after the CEO calls, apologizes for their trouble and explains what she’ll do to fix it. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to push them off page 1. It ain’t easy. Find a really good SEO who knows a thing or 999 about reputation management. Give them a couple months. Pay them a lot. Send them chocolate. Pray.
Prevention: Own the rankings. Create subdomains like twitter.yourdomain.com and put all relevant tweets there. That’ll rank for your name pretty fast. Help other sites, even competitors, move up, too.

15. The big one

At the precise moment that the electrical guy opens the rooftop transformer on your building, a crow decides it’s had enough and crashes headfirst into the exposed wiring. The power goes off. The backup generators fail, too.
Bzzt. All goes dark.
The fix: If your site’s static, and you have a backup copy, put it on a cloud service like Amazon S3 and point your domain at it. If it’s dynamic, use Amazon EC2. If you can’t get at the site and don’t have a backup, or if you don’t have DNS (domain name service) failover, practice your crisis communications skills.
Prevention: Regular backups that are stored somewhere besides your hosting location. We’ve been using Amazon S3 since our big one in July, and have been very happy with it. Also, backup DNS, so you can repoint domains even if your hosting provider is down.

16. The misprice

Someone posted the price as $9.99 when it should have been $999.00. 50 customers make purchases before you can fix it.
The fix: If you can afford it, fill the orders. I’m serious. Poke fun at your mistake. Let folks know you will never have a sale like that again, but here’s 20% off for those of you who missed it. If you can’t afford it, apologize and let folks know they’ll have to pay more.
Prevention: Auto-notification if any price in your database drops by more than 50%. Also, proofing the edited product before and after it goes live. Threats don’t work – I’ve tried that.

17. The rankings collapse

You’re not banned, but your site’s dropped off Google’s front page for every important term. Gaaaah!
The fix: Wait a day, if you can. It’s hard, but this may be Google jerking the algorithm, and your chain. If that doesn’t fix it, start updating your site regularly (including the home page). Get to work on some link building, too.
Prevention: Ongoing, aggressive SEO and link bait. Fresh site content. Keyword diversity. Read blogs like Bruce Clay’s, SEOMOZ and, I dare say, mine. We’ll try to warn you if we know what’s coming.

It WILL happen

No amount of prevention will keep away the gremlins. At some point, something bad will happen.
Have a plan for when it does.
And, even more important: Have a plan for after. Yelling and screaming does not count. Sit down with the team. Figure out what happened. Figure out how you can avoid it next time. Tell your customers what happened and how you’ll avoid it, too.
The end result is a stronger site, a stronger team, and a stronger business.

SEO Copywriting eBook
Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Great guide Ian!
    There’s one more that I ran into once…
    “rm -fr” in the wrong directory, in my case it was the /images directory of a major metropolitan newspaper.
    We had backups that were easily accessible and a recovery strategy that was well documented.
    Luckily a “cp -r” fixed the problem in about 2 minutes. Crisis mostly averted.

  2. Goodness, Ian, you need a good tickle to cheer you up today!
    Excellent list and post – thank you – definitely one to share far and wide.
    Thank you

  3. Great list – if rather scary.
    That twitter.domainname.com suggestion is an interesting one; how would you do that? It occurs to me (since I tweet a lot of links) that there may be merit in listing those somewhere anyway, never mind reputation management. Is there a simple technique for automating that, or are you suggesting manually creating a page per tweet?

  4. @Lucy You can automate it, by ‘grabbing’ an RSS feed from a Twitter search result on your company name and republishing it on the subdomain. Sounds like I should write about that 🙂

  5. @Phil Ooooh, that’s a fun one. We’ve had those kinds of things happen, too. But yeah, usually if someone knows how to use ‘rm’ they know where the backups are, too. Right? Hopefully?…

  6. Loved this list. Forwarded it to several people who could DEFINITELY benefit from reading through this list.
    My particular sin of choice? The typo/grammatical error.

  7. Most of the time number nine is temporary. I warn clients ahead of time their site may drop but it will be back in a day or so. The longest I’ve waited for a site to resurface was around a week. It usually comes back bigger and better in the serps too.

  8. Hey – great job laying out some of the major Internet marketing fiascos. My thought is the list needs to be updated to include social media marketing. For example, a parallel to the hijacked domain is the hijacked social media account. As in have you secured your Facebook page, your Twitter account(s), YouTube, Vimeo, Blip, DailyMotion, identi.ca, Plurk, etc. You may not need them today, but what happens when they become relevant in your market?
    My 2 cents,

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