Amazon: A is for arrogant

The world's biggest e-tailer got itself in hot water thanks to a 'ham-fisted cataloging error.' But Amazon's real problem is its attitude -- and for that there's no easy fix.

Amazon found itself crucified this Easter, and though it has since climbed down from the cross, it hasn't quite managed to claw the nails out of its hands and feet.

The story, in case you missed it: Sometime around Egg and Bunny day, Amazon mysteriously started removing the sales rankings of many gay and lesbian book titles, making them virtually invisible to the store's search engine -- effectively shoving them into the closet.

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Authors of those books (who obsess over things like their Amazon sales rank) began wondering what the hell happened. Word hit the Twittersphere and, well, excrement meet fan. The tag #amazonfail became the meme for the weekend.

The more bloggers looked into it, the worse it seemed. Titles like "Heather Has Two Mommies" got deranked, but not "The Parents' Guide to Preventing Homosexuality." Gay erotica and sexually themed memoirs were nixed, but not Playboy collections or the memoirs of hetero porn star Ron Jeremy.

Was Amazon pulling its own version of Proposition 8, quietly trying to ban unions between gay authors and their readers? You can imagine the turdstorm that followed on that line of thinking. Amazon's initial response -- it's a "glitch," we're looking into it -- did nothing to mollify the seething anger.

It took a day or so to get something resembling an explanation (and an apology) out of Amazon for what had happened, and even that was pretty darned vague:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection. 

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles -- in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

(I asked an Amazon spokesmodel for a scooch more detail about what happened, but that statement is all they would share.)

Andrea James at the Seattle Post-Intellingencer newspaper Web site got a better explanation out of an Amazon employee who requested anonymity:

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.")

Oh, those wacky French. They have a different word for everything. And apparently a different view of what constitutes "adult" content. Playboy and hetero porn? Mais, non. Love between two consenting adults of the same gender? Mais, bien sur!

One question that's key to the whole discussion is: What in God's name was Amazon doing trying to filter out adult content in the first place?

It's like Jeff Bezos' mother was coming to visit and they didn't want her to find those copies of Juggs and Barely Legal under the couch.

This is very odd behavior for "a company that prides itself on offering a complete collection." That Amazon felt compelled to quietly remove the naughty bits from the sales ranks and search results suggests to me that the company sells an awful lot of it -- more than it'd like Jeff's ma to know. It reminds me of those pious family-owned hotel chains that don't want you to know how much $$$ they make selling XXX movies to their guests at $12 a pop.

This is classic Amazon behavior. Like Apple, Amazon feels beholden to no one but itself -- not its partners, affiliates, customers, or the general public. It deals with the world by parceling out information on a "need to know" basis -- and unless you work for Amazon, you don't need to know.

This attitude is now biting the company in the weebils. And in an era where the slightest screwup can circle the Twittersphere a thousand times while you're still trolling for jelly beans in your Easter basket, that's a dangerous attitude to have.

What do you think? Has Amazon failed? Shouldn't we know what really went wrong? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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