Good stores, selling bad products

Andy Rau

(Important note: the article linked below contains quite a bit of R-rated language and references some disturbing material. Read at your own discretion.)

Wired has a story about a Christian online retailer's worst nightmare: when inappropriate products (in this case, pornography, books about gay fatherhood, and disturbing music) appear on the "shelves" of an online Christian store.

It's not just one site at which this happens, according to the article. (Non-Christian sites run into this problem too, although it's perhaps less shocking than it is when it happens on a Christian site.) Nor is it a case of malice or heresy; it's the result of relying on third-party tools to sift through product inventories that consist of millions of items. Companies with limited staff or resources need to use these automated tools to help them manage their store inventories, and sometimes inappropriate products slip through the filter:

Giggle factor aside, the incongruities between the niche markets these websites target and the range of products they actually sell highlights a problem most small online retailers face. It's easy enough to set up a storefront selling a vast array of entertainment products, but it's extremely difficult to manage and market such a site. [...]

Indeed, Christian Discipleship Center founder Lawrence Wilson and Plier both say they've set up filters through BuyMusicHere to prevent objectionable products from appearing on their sites. Clearly automation is not working.

Have any readers run into this sort of problem in running their own online stores or ministries?

This particular problem can probably be solved by increasing the amount of attention you pay to your inventory--or, if you simply can't guarantee that problems like this won't happen, consider that this may not be an appropriate business model for you. But this isn't just a problem for online retailers; it's a symptom of a larger challenge faced by anybody who runs a website that links to other places on the internet. A lot of blogs have truly massive blogrolls, containing dozens or hundreds of links to blogs and websites--short of continual monitoring of those links, how can you be sure the occasional inappropriate link doesn't slip in? (And of course, there's the question of what to do, or even how to learn, when a link from a year-old blog post "goes bad" due to a domain name expiration.) Your readers are likely to forgive a bad link now and then, but the fact remains: there are far more products, websites, and people out there on the internet than we can process ourselves. As the above story reveals, automated services are not a foolproof answer.

How do you deal with this challenge?

Topics: Online