Friday, August 14, 2015 Algorithms: FAIL

Those of you who know me well know that I have a library. The only possible way to locate a wanted book, or make sure whether you already own a copy before buying something that strikes your eye (yep, that's happened), is to arrange and then list them alphabetically by author. At least that covers the fiction parts of the library. Reference books get organized by topic: field guides, hobbies, maps, dictionaries, etc.

Yesterday I decided to see what was new from a couple of my/our favorite authors. I wasn't ready to buy yet, being so close to relocating back down southwest, but I was curious. I found a couple book lists sites, but when they decided I liked them too much, and wanted me to log in, I switched over to I just have a thing about giving my personal information out to too many places. Amazon already knows me.


Really really well, and not just for books, but anything ranging from a rare hard-to-find cheese to a rain gauge with the holder of the collecting tube in the form of a frog with a fishing pole.

I started to find an annoying result when I typed an author's name into their internal search engine. Not only did that author's works pop up, but works by other writers did as well. They didn't even have to be in the same genre.

I'm already used to the feature "if you bought that you'll like these too" that they put at the end of their pages. Sometimes I look them over, sometimes not. The point is that they are separated, and I don't need to wade through them unless I'm interested at the moment. But frequently, by the fourth or fifth result in my search, some other author's work pops up. I don't even realize it right away, as frequently the author's name is very hard to read in the thumbnail photo of the book cover next to the description. I get excited that "my" author offers a new read, only to find out after wasting a minute or two that it's a completely different author. The more prolific "my" author is, the more authors I search about, the more annoying those erroneous selections become.

Let me give just one simple example. After several authors with rapidly increasing book lists, on impulse I decided to check whether Amy Tan had more than the three books I already own. Yes, she has, good to know, I'll make plans later to acquire them. But the fourth selection on their list was a book by Nevada Barr!

Now, her Anna Pigeon books are an OK read when I'm in the right mood. She writes a special kind of mystery that I enjoy occasionally, but usually not strongly enough to stock my own library with copies to read again sometime later. The juxtaposition of a Barr mystery with Chinese cultural fiction was a complete non-sequitur to me. I found it annoying.

In fact, I was annoyed enough to stop searching Amy Tan and instead search to find out how to lodge a complaint. Half a dozen clicks later - they don't make it easy, wanting to be sure that you really want to complain before they bother to read it - I was presented with an email form with a limited space to state my issue.

Yes, that's always a challenge. I'm sure you've noticed. It's why I don't use Twitter. If it can be said in 140 characters, why bother?

After sending in my complaint about irrelevant search results, citing the Tan/Barr combo as just one example, I went on to other things. They said I should hear back in 12-24 hours.

It took less time than that, and the answer was formulated with enough stock phrases that I wondered if a human actually responded or it was computer generated. They were sorry etc. etc. They did offer a very specific web address where I could get only Amy Tan's books. Since she only has 5 out, it would take me longer to copy/paste the 40 or 50 characters in the URL than it already had to sort through the original search results. They hadn't sent me the info in a link, I might add. I already had the particular info on Amy Tan's latest, and their fastening on that tiny piece of my complaint rather than the bigger picture picture of how it happens all the time really annoyed me.

I shot back a reply to their reply: "Amy Tan is just one example. It happens with EVERY search by author. I shouldn't have to know how to get so specific with each author I search out. You should be set up so my search gives accurate results and doesn't throw in the proverbial kitchen sink!!!!! If I wanted a kitchen sink, I'd search for it.  (And not expect to find bathtubs and countertops.)"

I'm awaiting  further contact.

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