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1-800-Flowers’ Web Tweak Accidentally Grows Thorns

March 6th, 2011

The “polite” reference is a point made by multiple Web performance firms, and it may be the heart of this issue. The premise is that it allows a retailer to easily identify and isolate those bots, for the purpose of preventing conversion rates from becoming meaningless. If a search engine bot is hitting a site repeatedly, for example, it could make the conversion percentages plummet, as the analytics engine would interpret every visit as a customer.

Some services, such as Gomez, also self-identify their agents but sometimes let clients not self-identify, so the service can make sure its performance metrics are real. In other words, by not identifying your bots—or by using direct browser connections, which is what Keynote Systems typically does—you avoid this issue, but you also can ruin a retailer’s conversion calculations.

1-800-Flowers’ Pititto didn’t want to discuss the strategy behind moving bots to a different server, suggesting it was the wrong takeaway from this incident. “From our standpoint, this is less an issue of us or any retailer being unaware (of the implications of rerouting bots) and more an issue of the Pingdoms of the world being unable to accurately track actual uptime and, therefore, reporting inaccurate information,” Pititto said. “Our focus is not on improving their accuracy; rather, as always, maintaining 100 percent uptime for our customers.”

That’s a fair point, but other companies that track retail uptime were much less hesitant to comment on the bot-rerouting strategy itself.

“It looks like [Flowers] deliberately deflected robots when they thought it was a peak time,” said Dave Karow, a senior product manager at Keynote Systems, adding that doing such a move on purpose is unwise. “Deflecting low-value non-revenue traffic to the dungeon is short-sighted, extremely short-sighted. If they made this move on purpose, they did not understand the implications of what they were doing.”

When pushed for any legitimate reason to make such a move, Karow came up with a deliciously Machiavellian thought. “The only positive motivation for hosing Gomez and others,” he said, was to let your rivals have incorrect information on your Web performance. Some chains, the theory goes, will tweak their sites to keep up with or slightly better their competition. This type of bot-rerouting approach would cause competitors “to not push themselves while your customer still get a really fast performance.”

That said, Karow still concluded that letting the bots see the real thing is the best approach. “If they’re gaming the system, they should be treating the bots better” to get better performance stats to be publicized, to attract more customers.

Karow compared this technique to a Web velvet rope, where some chains—including Sephora and Home Depot—”start deflecting people to a light version of their site when they have high traffic. You don’t get a failure. With Home Depot, you don’t even know that it’s happened.”

Over at Web tracking firm Gomez, Chief Technology Officer Imad Mouline echoed Keynote’s opinion that rerouting bots could prove short-sighted. “It may have unintended consequences. The spidering types of services, they each have some type of value for the retailer,” Mouline said. “If you’re representing a different face, a different performance” to some visitors, you could end up being quite unhappy.


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