Abortion, Adoption, Spelling, Technology, and Politics

What do these all have to do with one another? Apparently quite a bit in Amazon.com’s world. The NY Times today (3/20/2006) published an article outlining the unfortunate results of Amazon’s related search, spell checking, and automated recommendations systems. A search for books about abortion yielded a question, “Did you mean adoption?” at the top of the page which offended some abortion rights activists because the results seemed to skew toward anti-abortion books and messages.

According to Amazon:

…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 “adoption.”

While the prompt has now been disabled, this raises the question of how to best manage issue-blind technology amidst a multi-cultural customer base. Obviously Amazon’s primary goal is shareholder value which can be bolstered by improved recommendations that drive increased sales. But the potential loss associated with a technology “blunder” that alienates a political group, cultural segment, or any other broad-based population could erode value for the organization faster than you can say “1-Click ordering.”

Evidently, the “Human Factor” here actually has to be managed and monitored, at least for now, by a human being.

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