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Cross-selling goes awry on WalMart.com
Could it happen on your site?
rogerd

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 5:02 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

CNN Money reports that a cross-selling algorithm for DVDs at walmart.com went seriously awry, recommending African American themed movies to buyers of "Planet of the Apes" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

A Wal-Mart spokesperson called the malfunction "random", and the retailer took the recommendation engine offline for further debugging.

Wal-Mart 'heartsick' over DVD grouping [money.cnn.com]

This does point up issues with recommendation engines or similar ecommerce site features. Particularly if they are triggered by the purchases of others, suggestions can be quite random. At Amazon, I've had some weird recommendations pop up in the past, e.g., suggesting that others who bought the tech manual I was looking at also liked Star Wars (well, duhhh!) or a cookbook (huh?). With greater volume, of course, anomalies like this go away. For smaller sites, though, it would be easy to have Wal-Mart type problems. A purchaser of a religious book could get offered a naughty novel because of the unusual selection of a previous buyer.

Will we need disclaimers? "This site is not responsible for recommendations, which are not editorially reviewed and reflect the shopping patterns of other customers?"

 

engine

WebmasterWorld Administrator engine us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 5:08 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

A smart idea that went horribly wrong.

Frequent

5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 5:21 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

Their mistake was not setting safe default recommendations that won't change unless a product combination surpasses a certain frequency threshhold.

For instance, we often use a "most popular topic" feature on one type of site. This is populated "out of the box" with a predetermined set of known popular topics. These topics are each given a preset score that puts them at the top until our visitors actions determine a better topic to display.

Freq---

rogerd

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 5:31 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

>>not setting safe default recommendations

Could be... we don't really know what triggered WalMart's problem. It could have been a coding error, unexpected behavior by previous shoppers, or even someone's idea of a joke. It sounds like some kind of coding error or algorithmic problem if the spokesperson is correct about the random suggestions.

Setting some kind of threshold makes sense. If you've got a million products, though, it's tempting to set that threshold at a minimum level to pick up recommendations for very low-volume titles. Got to work the long tail...

I suppose some kind of "genre" factor might make sense. E.g., the site could recommend a PHP manual to a purchaser of another PHP manual based on the behavior of a single previous buyer, but might require much history from ten different customers to recommend a romance novel or a nose-hair trimmer. :) A sophisticated scheme could even uncover relationships between genres and adjust that threshold on the fly.

iJeep

10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 6:32 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

The good news from this article: It makes my problems of the day seem meager.

shri

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 6:43 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

One can always use certain APIs to verify recommendations. :)

NetRoll

10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 8:29 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

Seems to me that this is ridiculous. Another one looking for a way to sue a company to get easy money.

devitnow

10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 8:46 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

I'm a softy for sure because I can't help but feel sympathy for my fellow programmer who's getting that CCed Memo from half a dozon seniors over him or her... a bad Friday for sure.

I wonder too how the average Wal-Mart customer sees this problem. Are they thinking, 'this is poor coding' or do they think that somehow human editing was behind this.

lgn1

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 9:36 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

Forget about artificial intelligence, we first must teach computers political correctness. :)

rogerd

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 10:37 pm on Jan 6, 2006 (gmt 0)

One moral in this story is that even if random errors occur, some people will find a way to be offended and/or will assume some kind of conspiracy is at work.

Of course, so far all we have is a PR flak's word for the random nature of the errors. I'm sure WalMart isn't doing this as a corporate policy, but some individuals have a weird sense of humor. It's not difficult to imagine some low-level coder sneaking in something like this. (Think of the guy who put up false posts in Wikipedia implicating an individual in the Kennedy assassinations. Hilarious, eh?)

zulu_dude

5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 8:39 am on Jan 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

I agree; you'd probably find that African American themed DVD's were offered to buyers of hundreds of different titles, but the article only mentions those titles that could be deemed offensive. eg Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes.

In fact, almost any title could be deemed offensive to almost any people group if one had to examine it long and hard enough. Fortunately most people have more important things to do with their lives...

philaweb

5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 1:07 pm on Jan 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

Is this some kind of internal American thing?

Lex_Luther

5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 6:56 pm on Jan 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

Seems everyone gets offended at the most moronic things now a days. Perhaps it is an American thing, I don't know.

No one gets offended by high taxes, privacy invasions, political kick backs, shopping card scams, stupid laws etc... But I walk down the street enjoying a smoke and people react like i'm a terrorist, I just give the sheep the finger, and amazingly, have yet to be pounced to death.

Anyhow, didn't planet of the apes have to do with racism? Its been a long time since I saw it but I thought it was about the apes inability to be acceptive towards humans, becuase of thier in the box mentality and the humans different look. No matter how unpoliticaly incorrect, there seems to be a theme connection.

madmac

10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4688 posted 11:55 pm on Jan 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

Surely there were more "anomalies" than those two. We'll probably never know what they all look like though. But the article did say "It said the system was also referring buyers of movies such as "Home Alone" and "Power Puff Girls" to African American-themed DVDs."

Although I'm not sure which is worse, that people buying "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" were recommended African American DVDs, or that people were offended because they were recommended African American DVDs.

Oh, and I love how only 1/4 of the article is actually related to the issue, and the rest goes on to rant about some dumb spoof song that WalMart created. Journalism at its best folks

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