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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?"
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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...
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.
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