Days later, Amazon has maintained corporate silence on the issue of mistakenly flagging certain books as “adult”, a designation that serves to delist a product (not just books) from sales rankings, making it difficult to find them — unless you know how to look — in the Amazon catalog. While it might represent a blip in overall Amazon business, this error had real-life impact on authors and publishers. Imagine for a moment being the author whose newly released title was impacted by this error. You don’t get a do-over.
Right now, the episode known as “Amazonfail” remains a trending topic on Twitter and seems destined to become a staple in lessons on social media failure. Amazon described the problem as “embarrassing and ham-fisted”. I’d apply that description to their corporate response as well. While the noise has slowed to a dull roar, people are still talking. Amazon isn’t responding.
The current official unofficial explanation from the Amazon camp is, if you’re a database geek, remarkably prosaic (not so much if you were one of the many authors or publishers impacted). Basically a field was switched from off to on (or false to true). That field controls how certain information is served to Amazon’s customers. Approximately 57,000 books were incorrectly identified as “adult content.”
The insider look at AmazonFail obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer lays out a scenario that, according to an Amazon employee happens frequently. It happens to databases all the time. Booksquare tech overlord Kirk Biglione outlined the process that lead to this snafu, adding special emphasis to the complexity of unwinding the mess. The following, based on an account from an unnamed Amazon staffer, mirrors his explanation:
Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)
“It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said. (Emphasis mine, added because it comes into play later)
Provided this explanation remains operative, it answers the what and how question. More or less. Even as technical staff worked around the clock to fix an error that was elevated to Sev-1 (big-time problem), spokespeople remained silent. As we’ve seen, the lack of official response beyond the head-patting “we’re working of fixing it” did nothing to dampen customer ire. It did nothing to reinforce trust in the Amazon brand.
Several days later, it seems the problem is resolving, but look at one of the long-term consequences: on Sunday, April 12, 2009, the top result for the search term “homosexuality”, due to the error, was the 2002 book A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality — a book that promotes a practice that is deeply offensive to members of the homosexual community. Today, when I search, this title is in the top ten results, surely a side effect of its unexpected top level position.
We are left with several big issues for Amazon to resolve. First, of course, is how they are going to address the fact that this error impacted the bottom line business of authors and publishers. It’s impossible to estimate actual lost sales for any single book affected, but we know there was an impact. The error impacted Amazon’s business as well. Amazon needs to respond to this breach in a forthright manner.
Second, for those whose business relies upon Amazon’s ability to run its own business, Amazon needs to respond to questions of how this could happen and the steps being taken to prevent it from happening again. If it is true that a single employee was able to miscategorize some content and then flip a digital switch for an entire node (or branch) of products based on attributes of one, maybe two, maybe more products assigned to that node, then vendors need to understand the steps Amazon is taking to prevent their products from being “delisted”.
This isn’t just an issue for books, but that’s our focus here. The “adult” label exists in the record for all books, not just some. Human error occurs, and it can happen to any type of book or product.
Even as vendors can see how this impact them, customers of Amazon have lost trust. The Amazon search functionality — and I say this as someone who frequently uses the site for research — is famously quirky. Straight-on title searches often return odd results, a function, I believe, of adding sales rank information to results (this would explain why searching on the exact title of an out-of-print book would return many other choices before the book being sought). Stripping a product of sales rank by labeling it adult or some other designation that impacts results will lead casual searchers to assume the product isn’t available from Amazon. Maybe they’ll go somewhere else, maybe they’ll skip the purchase. Some, burned by this current failure, might worry that the problem is bigger.
There is no indication that this occurred as a result of malice on the part of anyone at Amazon, but the fact that one person could apparently wreak havoc should be enough for Amazon to be forthright about controls to prevent it from happening again. While Amazon admits that the error impacting a range of books, analysis indicates that the bulk of the delisting impacted specific types of books (titles dealing with sexual themes, including homosexuality and erotic writing). I would like to see how Amazon’s list squares with the titles identified by readers; my guess is the commonly identified themes will have the largest proportion of affected titles. Which leads to the final issue…
We all need to come to terms with something uncomfortable: this flag exists in the Amazon database and has for some time (see the emphasized text in the quote above). Amazon sells content that falls squarely in the X+-rated category. The initial customer service response about shielding the general Amazon customer base from this content makes sense now. The flag serves the purpose of burying pornographic (what Amazon calls “adult”) content a little deeper in the site; as we know, it can still be found, but some effort is involved.
The problem comes from the definition of, yep, pornographic materials. As we’ve seen over the past few days, it is something that can fall in the eye of the beholder. A single employee was capable of categorizing close to sixty thousand books as “adult” based on certain criteria. Amazon has not yet explained how that employee reached the conclusion that these titles were adult (I saw a news source that suggested this was a translation error), but there you have it. Someone deemed it to be so (or grossly misunderstood the use of the flag, also possible).
So now we all know this flag exists in the Amazon system, and we know it’s been in existence for a long time. We don’t know how it is used, who makes the decisions about whether to switch it on or off, or how outside pressures can be used to change the status of items in the database (one also suspects that another customer service comment about responding to customer complaints has an element of truth as well). While the book community in general will likely be more vigilant, it would be nice for Amazon to clarify its policy in this regard, and provide a notification/resolution process for those products that are “flipped”.
For better or worse, and I think we can find persuasive arguments on both sides, Amazon has had this “adult” policy for a long time. What hasn’t been made apparent is the fact that, if the customer service comments were true, there is a way for customers to initiate the process to flip the switch. It is one thing for content to be labeled adult from the get-go, it is another to change the status without due process, especially since that change impacts future sales. If there is a process whereby consumer complaints can lead to a product being delisted, then there needs to be transparency and dialogue (Jane from Dear Author discusses this as well.).
Amazon still has much explaining to do and many amends to make. Various levels of trust were breached. This mistake allowed us to see aspects of the company that most of us simply didn’t realize existed. And now we can see how the actions of one person can impact the business of many. Books might not be the largest part of Amazon’s business, but given the genesis of the company and their continued efforts in literary matters, I believe they are serious about their role in the world of books.
The question now becomes “are they serious about transparency and customer relations?”