You've probably noticed that search engines like Google's and Amazon's
offer alternate searches in case you've misspelled a word
you've entered. It's extremely useful for us fumble-fingered typists
and poor spellers. Amazon also adds a bit of commercialism to the
if a significant fraction of users search for "B" after searching for
"A", they'll eventually offer up "B" as an alternate for people
searching for "A".
Sometimes that doesn't work out too well, when the folks perusing your
site are of a certain obsessive persuasion. From the
Amazon.com last week modified its search engine after an abortion rights
organization complained that search results appeared skewed toward
Oh no! What happened?
Until a few days ago, a search of Amazon's catalog of books using the
word "abortion" turned up pages with the question, "Did you mean
adoption?" at the top, followed by a list of books related to abortion.
Outrageous! Obviously, this can not stand!
Amazon removed that question from the search results page after it
received a complaint from a member of the Religious Coalition for
Reproductive Choice, a national organization based in Washington.
One complaint, and Amazon leaps into action! Because people who
search on the word "abortion" shouldn't be forced
the word "adoption"! It's insensitive. Or something.
The "Religious Coalition for
Reproductive Choice" has its website here.
And, true enough, you'll see "Pro-faith", "Pro-family", and "Pro-choice"
on that page, but the word "adoption" is nowhere to be seen. It does
show up (for example) on their FAQ, where they
claim to be for it.
Or rather they're equally open to you choosing it. "Whatever!"
Unless, apparently, you happen to see it on an Amazon search page.
Because that's bad:
"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis, a retired
Episcopalian minister in Charleston, W.Va. "It represented an editorial
position on their part."
Perfect. Censorship demanded by religious fanatics. Gee, we've never
Of course, Amazon has a lame excuse, which also has the
minor advantage of absolute truth:
Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said there was no intent by the
company to offer biased search results. She said the question "Did you
mean adoption?" was an automated response based on past customer
behavior combined with the site's spelling correction technology.
She said Amazon's software suggested adoption-related sources because
"abortion" and "adoption" have similar spellings, and because many past
customers who have searched for "abortion" have also searched for
A million geeks think at this point: Duh!
Ms. Smith said the "Did you mean adoption?" prompt had been disabled.
(It is not known how often searches on the site turn up any kind of "Did
you mean..." prompt.)
Amazon, of course, is free to do whatever it wants with its
search engine. Including putting a bold magenta notice on it: "Offended
by something you see?
Let us know, we'll disable it! We're huge wusses!
But the reactionary forces still are rearing their ugly heads:
Customers, however, are still offered "adoption" as a possibility in the
Related Searches line at the top of an "abortion" search results page.
But the reverse is not true.
That's the way it works for me, I just checked.
And why is that?
Ms. Smith said that was because many customers who searched for abortion
also searched for adoption, but customers who searched for "adoption"
did not typically search for topics related to abortion.
Apparently, Amazon is going to continue making automatic related
searches available based on the actual search patterns of
its customers, without second-guessing the politics involved. One
cheer for Amazon.
But the folks at RCRC are still a little miffed.
Still, the Rev. Jeff Briere, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist
Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a member of the abortion rights
coalition, said he was worried about an anti-abortion slant in the books
Amazon recommended and in the "pro-life" and "adoption" related topic
Here's Jeff's page
, by the
way. Fave quote: "Cyndi Lauper is my favorite theologian." No, I'm
not making that up. Go look.
Anyway, if Jeff is "worried" about an "anti-abortion" slant
when looking at "pro-life" books on Amazon, then I think … well,
he must be worried all the time about just about
everything. (Jeff, when you search for "vampires", you're
going to see some references to fangs and blood. Just letting you
know ahead of time.)
"The search engine results I am presented with, their suggestions, seem
to be pro-life in orientation," Mr. Briere said. He also said he
objected to a Yellow Pages advertisement for an anti-abortion
organization in his city that appeared next to the search results,
apparently linked by his address.
Jeff would prefer that he lead his life sheltered from
"pro-life" suggestions and advertisements. His is a delicate soul,
Or is he really more worried that other people might be
exposed to such suggestions and advertisements? Maybe. Unitarians,
in my experience, are pretty much "that's cool" type
folks, but apparently pro-life suggestions and advertisements are
enough to turn them into censorious Ayatollahs.
Web software that tracks customers' purchases and searches makes it
possible for online stores to recommend items tailored to a specific
shopper's interests. Getting those personalized recommendations right
can mean significantly higher sales.
But getting it wrong can cause problems, and Amazon is not the first
company to find that automated online recommendations carry risks.
The "risks" seem to be that easily-offended
people, might see something that offends
them, and (ignorant of the technology involved) assume a political
motivation where none exists.
Certainly Amazon would prefer that not happen.
certainly) if Amazon bows to pressure to tweak its search results
and sidebar ads in response to pressure groups,
it will find itself on a very slippery and steep slope.
Hope they keep that risk in mind, too.
(Link to the NYT
article via the Corner.)