January 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

The importance of testing

Walmart.com learned a hard lesson last month when its automated cross-selling system linked a DVD of “Planet of the Apes” to movies with African-American themes: Test, test, and then test some more.

Walmart.com learned a hard lesson last month when its automated cross-selling system linked a DVD of “Planet of the Apes” to movies with African-American themes: Test, test, and then test some more.

Wal-Mart shut down the movie cross-selling system after being notified that a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday promotion inadvertently created offensive links between African American movies and films such as “Planet of the Apes” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” When setting up the promotion in January 2005, the company linked a box set containing four African-American movies to boxed sets of 263 other films. “Unfortunately, some of the inadvertent combinations were very offensive,” the retailer said in a statement.

Wal-Mart isn’t the first retailer to encounter problems with automated recommendation engines, says David Fry, CEO of Fry Inc. Amazon.com had a similar incident when it started selling apparel in addition to books, videos and music. “If you were looking at a book, it would say down below, ‘people who bought this book also bought this underwear,’” he says. “Anytime you use an algorithm-based recommendation engine, there’s always a possibility for snafus. You have to be careful.”

The best way to avoid such problems is to use people who know the products and the customers to generate recommendations, Fry says. But if that’s not possible, the retailer needs to thoroughly test the promotion, looking for silly or offensive links.

“The problem here was they defaulted a large section of categories to make recommendations on this one boxed set of videos,” he says. “That’s less an issue about recommendation engines and more of an issue about quality assurance.”

The only way to prevent unintentional connections is to do the process manually. “This is not a practical approach for sites with a large inventory and a wide variety of products such as Walmart.com, however,” says Christian Donner, senior consultant and technical architect with technology consulting company Molecular Inc.

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