How the Mighty Fall? Yahoos Embarrassing Web Errors

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2007-10-22 Print this article Print

Our correspondent finds himself unable to heed his mother's advice about not saying anything at all if you can't say something nice. Or maybe Yahoo is right and that necktie really does cost $27,000?

Maybe I'm behind the times, but I still think of Yahoo as one of the Web's great success stories. And, until recently, I also thought of it as setting the standard in Web site operations. When I was writing a cover story on MySpace and noticed the large number of errors I came across there, Yahoo was the first Web site I thought of as the scalable and reliable contrast.

But that was before I came across the phantom Afghani restaurant on Yahoo Local and the $27,000 necktie on Yahoo Shopping.

In the past few months of researching an upcoming story on Yahoo, I've tried to find a positive story to tell, honest I have—if only because of the contrarian appeal of finding a different take on the story than the majority of the business press. And I did find some cool things going on, some room for hope.

But it's hard for me to really maintain they've got their act together when I see something like this:

For the record, these merchants aren't really quite this overpriced. The Drapeneck Dress is actually $39.99, not $39,990—and you'd have seen the proper price if you'd clicked through from this search screen to the product detail page on the JCPenney Web site. But some naughty Yahoo subsystem responsible for aggregating catalog data from multiple partner websites was multiplying prices by a factor of 1,000. Not every listing was messed up, but a whole lot of them were.

I found this screen entirely by accident, after I thought I was done with my reporting. I was checking prices on PDAs and noticed they seemed way out of whack. Soon I was finding similar 1,000-times-too-high prices across multiple categories (clothing, hardware, electronics) and merchants on Yahoo Shopping. Although I haven't gotten an official answer about what was going on here through Yahoo public relations channels, I got an absurd one from customer service:

"In rare cases, merchants adjust the prices of products they offer between the regular updates of Yahoo! Shopping's index of items, which can lead to discrepancies between the price listed in Yahoo! Shopping and the actual price that merchant is charging at that time."

In other words, JCPenney just lowered the price from $39,990, and Yahoo is just running a little behind? Despite my effort to report the problem, it persisted from Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon.

This made me feel a little guilty for ignoring a similar glitch I came across when preparing for an interview with the team behind Yahoo Local. While looking to see what businesses the directory had listed in my area, I was surprised to see that there were apparently two Afghani restaurants nearby:

But when I clicked for details, I got this:

Brian Gil, the senior product manager for Yahoo Local, awkwardly told me he had seen this error before. "We multi-source from various data providers to produce these listings," he explained, and sometimes there can be errors with the process of "blending and re-providing the listings."

Why didn't I jump all over this the way I mocked MySpace for the errors on its website? At the time, I was more focused on learning how the Yahoo Local people had redesigned the Web site and why. I saw interesting things going on at the user interface level and with making the directory Web 2.0-ish in the way it featured member comments on the business listings. So I brushed off this hiccup in the backend systems, figuring it might be an isolated incident.

But now I'm not so sure. Those inflated Yahoo Shopping prices look a whole lot like more problems with "blending and re-providing" data. Meanwhile, the Afghani restaurants error was still showing up a month and half after I interviewed Gil. And if Yahoo can't aggregate data accurately, isn't that a bit of a problem?

Write to author David F. Carr.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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