Twitter wasn’t the only high-profile internet company that didn’t have a peaceful Easter weekend.

Online retail giant Amazon found itself on the receiving end of a firestorm over the apparent removal of sales rankings from gay and lesbian-themed books.

The news of the apparent removal spread virally through Twitter, where many expressed astonishment and anger over the possibility that Amazon had specifically targeted gay and lesbian-themed books.

On Twitter, users used the #AmazonFail hashtag to catalog the social media backlash, which quickly made its way to the blogosphere and mainstream media outlets.

Amazon was caught off guard and failed to nip the issue in the bud; not exactly surprising given the bizarre nature of the ‘glitch’ and the fact that it was a holiday weekend. Despite the flurry of inquiries that concerned consumers sent to Amazon, few reported receiving satisfactory responses. One Amazon publisher was informed by an Amazon member services rep that:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

This response only fanned the flames further, as many of the books that were affected were by no means ‘adult‘ in nature.

In the absence of a detailed official response, speculation spread. Was Amazon attacking gay and lesbian-themed books for some reason? Was Amazon hacked? Was it possible that a disgruntled employee was up to no good?

And then Amazon finally stepped forward with an official response on Monday evening with Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener issuing the following statement:

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.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue and whether you find Amazon’s explanation to be satisfactory or not, ‘AmazonFail‘ is a good case study in crisis management.

Unlike most social media uprisings, the source of this uprising – Amazon’s ‘glitch‘ – wasn’t a matter of opinion or taste. There was a real problem and unfortunately for Amazon, it looked especially bad because so many books in a specific category were affected.

Amazon’s inability to quickly address the growing situation in a definitive manner with clear answers made matters worse, as did the initial responses consumers received from Amazon reps who understandably didn’t know what was going on. The lack of a substantial response created a vacuum in which speculation and conspiracy theory were allowed to run rampant.

From suggestions that Amazon was engaging in overt discrimination to claims that Amazon had been hacked, the mob had control of the message; Amazon didn’t. That’s the real story here.

After all the dust has settled, it’s unlikely that Amazon will see a decline in goodwill or sales. But this is obviously an experience most companies would do well to avoid. So even if you shouldn’t pay attention to all of the criticism your company receives online, when you have made an embarrassing mistake, don’t sit back and let others come up with answers to questions you’re not answering.

Photo credit: Nima… via Flickr.