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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 April, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2381 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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Alex

True indeed - it's important to be quick off the mark when answering questions in the social media sphere, but Amazon did exactly the right thing in explaining the actual issue (embarrassment and all) once they did get their statement together.

I am one of the first people to proclaim the importance and growing influence of social media; still I agree that no harm will be done to Amazon. A large part of their customer base is not among the small percentage of the 6m-odd users on Twitter. That said, I think it's encouraging how often stories from the social media sphere are making it to the mainstream (provided the anger and indignation is well-placed, as it often is).

Amazon might have been slow but it was apparently honest. Yes, a good story travels faster than boring facts, but at least now that statement is out there to be linked to and quoted.

over 7 years ago

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Sam

Well - it might seem a slow response to everyone who spends all day on Twitter - but on a Easter weekend surely taking a couple of days to get back to everyone on this is not unreasonable? Given that it doesn't look like Amazon is running a homophobic website, was it really so bad? Strewth! I didn't know about this story until Tuesday - i wasn't logged on for every *second* of the weekend - it was sunny where i was! Good enough for me...

over 7 years ago

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