Marketing the best of a bad situation: gracefully communicating downtime news on the web

The other evening Camillo Di Tullio, a.k.a. Dr Who, asked me via IM if I was having problems accessing highly trafficked websites like Facebook or LinkedIn. In that particular moment, I wasn’t, but his question stuck a particular cord. We’ve seen many downtime issues with major Internet sites lately.

Website downtime, planned and unplanned, presents a company with a reluctant marketing opportunity. After all, investments in search engine visibility and other website traffic drivers are all for naught when a site is no longer reachable. The best a company can do is acknowledge the issue and, where appropriate, attempt a dose of humor while working frantically behind the scenes to insure the problem doesn’t occur again.

What follows is an informal survey of mostly recent “site is unavailable” downtime messages. I conclude with information on keeping website service pages out of search engine results.

Google is unavailable. Seem far fetched?

For most European Internet users, it would be difficult to image a day navigating the web without the Google search engine. Searching to find a site. Searching to find out more information about a product or service. Searching to accomplish a task such as making a purchase. All things we take for granted. But should we? Could the Internet look like this one day:?

Google Error Page
Illustration 1: Typical Google simplicity extends to their error pages.

Probably not. This particular error was with Gmail, more than a year ago. But just for fun, try using Yahoo! search for a day!

Shopping at

Staples is an large office supply chain with a presence in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Portugal. This is their website:

Staples has a website problem.
Illustration 2: on 21 July 2008.

Can you guess what today’s offer is?

Insurance, or doubts at Genialloyd?

Staples isn’t the only business site to bend under pressure lately. Genialloyd is an insurance website, part of the Allianz Group.

Genialloyd: an error has occurred.
Illustration 3: Genialloyd isn’t currently (19 July 2008) available due to technical problems.

At least one can say is that this error page is a bit more informative than that of Staples. As a side note, I’ve actually found the overall service offered by Genialloyd to be very good.

, on its last tweet?

Essentially a multichannel Instant SMS broadcast service, Twitter has been embraced by many early adopter types as an efficient communication tool, using Twitter for fun and business. Yet Twitter has struggled to keep up with the explosive grown it has sustained. Images like this are all too familiar:

Twitter's constituent pieces
Illustration 4: Twitter says… something is wrong

Actually, the issue becomes clearer…

Twitter's Infamous Whale
Illustration 5: Twitter is just… over capacity

The whale or the alien and the bomb: which do you prefer?


Not willing to wait for Twitter to get its act together, many have tried promising alternative services such as Plurk. While I’m not so certain Plurk’s user interface is an improvement over Twitter’s, Plurk currently has fewer users than Twitter, meaning that social media conversations are with a more limited audience. Plurk does seem to share at least one thing in common with Twitter – a creative “site is down” page:

Not the Plurk team you wanted?
Illustration 6: Plurk is currently unavailable.

It might not be fair to pick on the relatively young sites Twitter (October 2006) and Plurk (2008). Even the seasoned pros in the social media networking sector like LinkedIn are having problems scaling their sites too.

LinkedIn will be back shortly.
Illustration 7: LinkedIn… Will Be Back Soon (July 9th 2008)

And indeed, they’re back now. Programmed maintenance includes a magician, although I’m not sure why:

The LinkedIn Magician will get things back to normal
Illustration 8: Programmed maintenance is apparently magical.

How would you market a company’s downtime?

In some cases, downtime is necessary to roll out new functionality. User goodwill can be maintained by announcing scheduled maintenance in advance as Microsoft adCenter analytics has done in a blog post, in an e-mail, and with a site message:

adCenter Analytics is undergoing an upgrade
Illustration 9: adCenter Analytics work in progress.

Different companies, different images, different site down messages. The most important point is that companies think about how they will communicate service issues – planned maintenance and unscheduled downtime – on the web.

Keep your downtime service message page out of Google

As a search engine marketing professional, I strongly recommend that companies consider not only the message they want to convey, but that they insure this message doesn’t end up in search engines. There’s no need for people to encounter a disservice message after the event.

There are various ways to keep web content out of search engines. The best approach in this particular case is for the web server to issue a 5xx “server error” status, such as 503 Service Unavailable. This is a strong signal to search engines: the content is an error page which would not be useful to users in web search results. It is also a safe assumption that the server error is temporary, unlike a “noindex” metatag or a robots exclusion directive, both of which may or may not be temporary.

How is your company managing its planned and unplanned downtime image?

Similar Posts:

Registration is now open for the next SEO Course and Google Analytics Course in Milan. Don’t miss the opportunity!

About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

4 Responses to "Marketing the best of a bad situation: gracefully communicating downtime news on the web"