Canonical catastrophe: Google's indexing troubles could hit ecommerce hard
Imagine this: you’re an ecommerce retailer preparing for Black Friday in a time where more people than ever are shopping online. In fact, depending on where you are in the world, Black Friday might only be available online this year.
You’ve done everything right. Stressed tested your systems? Tick. Worked out your marketing plan and follow up strategy? Done. Fine tuned your sales strategy and planned for downtime? Yes and yes.
Never before have you been so prepared for sales season. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, not to be alarmist, but your whole entire site could disappear from the search results. Ahem. Think that’s being over dramatic? What if it already happened and you only discovered it too late?
The bad news is: it might have already happened.
Starting around September 22, 2020 - perhaps even earlier - something odd has been happening to sites all over the interwebs. Webmasters from different niches from all parts of the world have been reporting that their pages are being de-indexed at a massive scale.
And we’re not talking the fly-by-night, dodgy websites here. Established websites – news sites, ecommerce sites all reported that their pages were disappearing from search.
Glitches in indexing aren’t unusual, but this has been severe and, with just weeks to go before Black Friday, it could pose a serious crisis for ecomm retailers counting on the biggest weekend of the year.
The issue, it appears, largely stems from Google selecting the incorrect canonical URL for some websites. In some cases, the wires have been so crossed that the Google-selected canonical is not just wrong or unrelated – it’s from a completely different website in a different niche… belonging to a completely different person or entity.
This is a chameleon on Rubik’s Cube stuff.
At the time of first writing this, there was no way of knowing how widespread the issue is – or how many people even noticed that it was happening. Google had not even officially acknowledged the fact that it’s a bug yet. While they started asking for some examples of URLs where this happened, a solution seemed a long way off... while Black Friday is creeping ever closer. Yikes.
That has since changed. Google acknowledged not just one, but two separate issues - one around canonicalization errors and another around mobile indexing. The even scarier scary part? The mobile indexing issue started early September. The issue with canonicalization impacted, "roughly 0,02%" of the index. Sounds small, but at a rough estimate, that's around 320 million pages if you're keeping score. For mobile pages, it's much worse: a whopping 0,2%.
For any business, this is the stuff of nightmares. (Or a nightmare about having a nightmare considering the sort of year 2020 has been.) Those businesses who are trying to leap from seed stage infancy into the testy toddler years could be devastated by something like this.
Nobody can control such an uncontrollable. We can’t even predict such business breaking earthquake - but in this world of data on demand, growing businesses can make sure that they mitigate some of trip hazards.
This can be overwhelming, especially for new entrepreneurs. And especially because of our obsession with the thought that failure will condemn us to the naughty corner rather than throw us into the deep end of learning something from our missteps.
Often, in the early days for any businesses, the sales process is less of a process and more of an exercise in let's-definitely-make-sure-we-pay-the-bills. Over time, it moves to let's-definitely-make-sure-we're-making-some-money. During a global pandemic, it’s a bit of what-am-I-even-doing-help-me-please kinda vibe, depending on your product.
But eventually, you reach a point at which you are ready to serious scale - and it's systems, tools, and ultimately simple daily habits that will unlock this part of the growth strategy for you.
Until something that you cannot control sends you spiralling out of control. Like... a massive glitch weeks before Black Friday.
So what’s the point here? Peeps, this is an instruction for you to go check your canonical URLs.
We would never claim that we have deciphered the mystique of The Algorithm (has anybody?), but we know to keep an eye out for when seismic shifts might cause tectonic ruptures. The right growth partners are not meant to be a Swiss Army Knife. Growth partners are all the things in a Swiss Army Knife - holding your hand through the tremors.
And if you’re not looking for your deconstructed Swiss Army Knife, share this post (and its non-sales-y, critically important canonicals reminder) with somebody who might be, will ya?
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