Amazon gives special treatment to abortion

One feature which is being increasingly offered by search engines is automatic spelling suggestions. Usually for a term that doesn’t return results, but also for terms which return fewer results than other similarly-spelled words.

This happens with general search engines, but also with some stores that allow customers to search their stock. Stores like Amazon. And it makes perfect business sense. They want to sell. And anyone running a search may want to buy. So if someone may want something a little different than what they typed, at least offering to amend the search is the way to go.

As sometimes happens, though, they ran afoul of another case where the usual automatic algorithm naturally fails to take into account politically charged terms. In this case a search for “abortion”, while returning the results for the search, suggested a corrected spelling of “adoption”.

And, as often happened, someone who saw this decided to ignore the fact he was working with a generic algorithm, and complain about the affront.

Amazon, in response, manually changed the result page not to suggest this correction. This was even the correct thing to do. In this particular case it is extremely unlikely that someone will make this particular mistake as a simple typo. Offering a usually-unhelpful correction is a little annoying, and should go. And with this specific search, if they can prevent customers, even a few customers, from getting offended, that’s a good thing.

What bothers me is the reason they provided:

But the company says it ditched the question because the e-mailer raised a valid question. People who type in the term “adoption” don’t get a prompt asking: “Do you mean abortion.”

What? They cancelled it because the correction wasn’t symmetrical? Not because it was a mistake not likely to happen? Not because it was politically charged? Not because it could drive away a few customers? But because the other direction wouldn’t have gotten the same correction offer?

That seems absurd. These things are hardly ever symmetrical. They shouldn’t be. If I run a search for “splling” I want to get back a “did you mean spelling?” question. If I run a search for “spelling” however, I would be surprised to be offered to search for “splling” instead.

This sort of search isn’t exactly a dictionary search, but the same logic applies. It should try to offer more common spellings as correction to less common ones. If a lot more people are searching for “adoption” than are searching for “abortion”, then as far as the algorithm is concerned offering a correction from “abortion” to “adoption” will make perfect sense, while offering a correction in the other direction will not.

Same thing, depending on how the algorithm works, if there are many more items in stock that would fit a search for “adoption” than there are that would fit “abortion”. One way correction is proper, the other isn’t. It will merely inconvenience searching customers with irrelevancies, a lot more times than it would help them.

Cases where it would be proper to offer corrections both ways would be extremely rare. Maybe if there are two search terms which are very similar, and both extremely popular. This doesn’t really happen a lot. Even if it does happen, it’s not the rule but rather the exception.

And Amazon knows that. They have to know that. Their technical people, and their marketing people, know that. So making a public statement to the contrary is odd. Especially when the likely real reason isn’t problematical. It doesn’t require hiding. Nobody would take it hard that Amazon want to give customers better search results, and want to avoid offending customers.

Is the sense of having to hide real and nefarious business reasons so strong that they can’t go out with the real reason even when the real reason is perfectly valid? What does it say about the times when what they say does make sense? Should we understand they’re hiding something then too, because that’s the way they work? Peculiar…

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