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Thomas Krafft

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One Line of Code

In 1999, one of the most notable brands of the dot-com era – a name almost synonymous with the “World Wide Web” itself – made a bid to dominate the entire ecommerce market for individual, small and mid-size businesses. They spent roughly a half BILLION dollars on key acquisitions, and actually had a real shot at success. At that time, the market for SMB ecommerce was pretty much wide open. This company could have garnered the whole thing.

Using the technologies and services they had acquired, people could fairly easily setup their own online stores complete with product catalog and shopping cart, ecommerce and merchant services already plugged in. In 1999, this was HUGE.

There was a problem though.

As was common with most advanced online services back then, this company’s ecommerce was enabled through code and scripts that a site would store in a folder called “/cgi-bin/” and which webmasters and developers alike would make sure to hide from search engine spiders (indexing engines) by adding a line to a common site configuration file which would exclude the cgi-bin from indexing. At that time, search engine optimization was a relatively new science that most people didn’t understand. I did.

Robots file

This new ecommerce offering by this big notable company basically gave anyone and everyone their own website, that ran on a platform completely powered by scripts in the cgi-bin, but all these sites included a configuration file that was hard-coded to exclude (prevent) search engines from indexing any content within the cgi-bin directory. The problem was, ALL content originated from the cgi-bin, which meant that any sites powered by this technology would never appear on any search engine.

I discovered this issue while reviewing this new offering. As I mentioned, “ecommerce for anyone” was like finding the Holy Grail at that time. I immediately sent the company an email, telling them their $500 million investment was in jeopardy, that their venture would absolutely fail unless they removed that one line of code or otherwise provided aliases for content that could be indexed by the search engines. I told them that no online store could exist without being indexed by, and discoverable through, the major search engines.

They could have fixed everything by updating one line of code. One line.

But like most big notable brands with lots of money and some of the smartest most expensive employees and all the best press you could buy, they either ignored my message out of arrogance, or they simply had no desire or channel to allow a message from a nobody like me to become actionable within their organizational decision and management hierarchy.

Less than two years later, this big notable brand’s entire ecommerce venture was shuttered, a complete failure which, for me, highlighted some of the biggest causes of the dot-com bubble. If the company had changed that one line of code in just one web file, they could very well have dominated the entire SMB ecommerce game – definitely viable through the dot-com bubble, and perhaps even through today.

Here’s the point: Every detail matters – but it’s often only possible to notice granular problems like this by looking at the entire picture AND understanding how all the component parts work together.

In the example above, a developer added an “exclude” command into a robots.txt file to prevent search engine from indexing code that was critical to their business, from a technical perspective. The problem was valid, but the solution was not. The technical person had no idea about the business impacts of his/her implementation. Meanwhile, the business folks lacked knowledge of the very technology upon which their entire venture depended. And no one, at any level, at any time, seemed concerned about this impedance mismatch or the risks associated with a technology business where the technology and business groups couldn’t communicate or address these types of issues.

Every detail matters – particularly when your business depends on some platform or offering involving some key components your business people might not understand natively. It is important then to ensure your team or organization includes key people who are able to translate between technical, customer-facing, product, creative, and business groups.

Otherwise, you too might end up like that notable dot-com brand – and countless tens of thousands of others just like them. It’s surprising how often companies allow their disparate teams to compartmentalize themselves - and the result is almost never good.

What does a half-billion dollar investment in 1999 get you today? Apparently, $1,395 - if anything. The image below is NOT an ad, but a screenshot.

ExciteStores

The moral of the story is this: If you’re building a company to change the world, just make sure you can also identify and change one very critical line of code (real or metaphorical) as well.

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More Stories By Thomas Krafft

Over 15 years of experience in marketing and demand creation, with strategies driving over $500 million in revenue for a variety of companies in several high-growth and competitive markets, including consumer software and web services, ecommerce, demand creation through web and search, big data, and now healthcare.