Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon Update

Amazon is trying to sidestep the publicity nightmare by claiming that this is all a glitch and that they're working on fixing it. Umm, sure.

Jane at Dear Author looked up the metadata for a number of books, both ranked and de-ranked, and it seems the stripping of sales ranks might've been done in accordance with the metadata, looking for "Gay & Lesbian" or "Erotica" in the metadata to choose what to strip. Books like A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality weren't stripped of their ranking because, despite being clearly about homosexuality, they don't have "Gay & Lesbian" in any of their metadata.

That explains how this could have been done automatically. There apparently is a consistent keyword-type search which could've been used to strip rankings on books which all had metadata features in common by someone typing in a command. I still don't buy the "glitch" story, though, because that doesn't explain why writers like Mark Probst were told straight out that the de-ranking was done by Amazon, per their policy of removing "Adult" material from searches and listings. Why would anyone have said, "Yes, we do this, it's policy" if it was actually a glitch? Sorry, Amazon -- I'm still not buying it.

Note also that someone came up with the tag Amazonfail and people have been applying it on Amazon to books which had their ranking stripped. This isn't something that's going to force Amazon to do the right thing; they can and likely will delete the tag as soon as they notice it. I'm willing to spend some time tagging and confirming tags just to be annoying, though; have fun if you have some free time.

I did notice that some of the books which have been used as counter-examples ("Why were those books de-ranked and not these?!") have been included in the Amazonfail tagging. I didn't confirm those; I still think that all the books should have their rankings and be included in searches and listings. No matter what I personally think of some other books (the historical manual on dogfighting, for example) I oppose all censorship and suppression of books and won't even suggest suppressing books I disapprove of, any more than I approve of anyone else censoring books I like. That's just me, though.



Charles Gramlich said...

I guess i don't understand why a book being listed as adult would result in it losing its sales rating.

Travis Erwin said...

I've been following all of this on twitter. Crazy stuff.

Angie said...

Charles -- they've got some kind of mechanism to strip sales rankings from books marked (however they're doing that, whether it's metadata or something else) as "adult." It has to be something like, IF METADATA CONTAINS [keyword] THEN STRIP RANK WIDGET, or whatever, whether they're doing it automatically or by hand. I'm imagining there has to be some automation at work here.

According to the letter Mark got from Amazon, it's the sales ranking which determines whether a book shows up on bestseller lists and in search results; since the lists order books by sales rank, if a book doesn't have that ranking the list doesn't "see" it. So apparently the most efficient way they could think of to prevent the so-called adult books from showing up in searches and lists (oh, and in the "If you liked X, you might also like Y" recommendations too) was to strip off that ranking.

I've seen a couple of people suggest that a much better way to handle this would've been to give each customer some sort of check-box so they could decide whether or not they want adult material (and why only books? you can still find dildos with no problem) displayed to them. There you go, everyone gets what they want, no more fuss. It would've probably taken a bit more programming, but Amazon's a big company and I'm sure they could've assigned a coder or two to the project. :/

Travis -- [nod] It's just insane. Amazon's cutting their own throat, if only in terms of suppressing sales, aside from all the bad publicity they're getting. You really have to wonder who thought this was a good idea.


Charles Gramlich said...

So they definitely could fix it if they were of a mind too.

Angie said...

Charles -- oh, absolutely. [nod] This isn't something inherent in their database, or anything their computer system came up with themselves. Even if stripping the ranking data from all GLBT and Erotica books really was some sort of error, the fact is that they do mean to strip ranking data from at least some books. They're shooting flies with an elephant gun, because one blam with an elephant gun is faster and a lot less trouble than swatting the flies individually.

What they should do, as a few people have suggested, is provide an opt-in check box for people who actually want their searches and bestseller lists stripped. Heck, they could allow each customer to choose to never see any metadata term they want. It'd take more programming effort, but it's definitely doable and it'd let the people (and I'm betting it's not very many, but whatever) who actually want what they see to be censored to choose to have it so, and in what way. There you go -- everyone's happy. Instead they chose to type in a couple of commands (so far as anyone can tell, and with the caveat that I haven't read blog posts yet today, or yesterday when I was travelling) and wipe out whole categories of books for everyone. Ridiculous.