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eBay’s Value Problem is a Search Problem

It has been quite a long time since I posted here about eBay.  I still use the site regularly (I typically still list at least a few things every month), and while I may tweet about things from time to time, I rarely feel the need for a full blog post.

On January 21st, Ikai Lan (@ikai) posted this tweet:

What’s the big deal, right?  So what if Ikai found a better deal on Amazon for his Star Trek geekfest?

Here’s the big deal. This was my response to Ikai:

The issue here isn’t that I was somewhat obnoxious (although clearly, I was a bit obnoxious).  Ikai & I worked together at LinkedIn, so it’s not unexpected to have a little bit of fun with the back & forth on Twitter.

The problem is that Ikai is a smart, technical guy.  He’s also someone who looks for a good deal.  If someone like Ikai thinks that Amazon has a cheaper price on an item like the complete DVD collection for Star Trek DS9, then eBay has a real problem.

eBay’s Value Problem

When I wrote my Eulogy for eBay Express in 2008, I talked about four key value propositions that eBay navigates: value, selection, trust and convenience.  One of the motivating factors behind eBay Express was trying to find a way to leverage eBay’s huge advantages in value and selection, while shoring up perceived weaknesses in trust and convenience.

But here we are in 2010, and while eBay has the item, apples-to-apples, for over $100 less than Amazon.com – Ikai didn’t know it.  And you know what?  If a low price falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound… or a sale.

eBay’s Value Problem is actually a Search Problem

The point is, despite the fact that Ikai is an engineer working at Google, he couldn’t find the item.  So a $115 price advantage was nullified.   Why?

I’m not a 100% sure what Ikai did to identify the proposed “$350 price”.  When I searched on eBay, I found literally dozens of items priced below $300, many of which were from top sellers, and many of which that offered returns.  In fact, I saw items as low as $130, but I tried to find the lowest priced item that matched the quality of service Ikai would expect from an Amazon third party seller.

Of course, I’ve been on eBay since 1998, and I spent years working on structured data and search products at eBay, so I have a hunch why I found the items and he didn’t.

He typed the wrong query. My guess is that he typed something like this “Star Trek DS9 season 1-7” in the DVD category.  Makes sense, right?  Unfortunately, this only returns two items, the cheapest of which is $299.

Despite years of investment, the eBay search engine still doesn’t understand that “DS9 = Deep Space Nine”, and that “1-7″ is a range, and that “season” is an attribute that DVD sets for television series can have.

Now, what I did do?  Simple:

  1. I typed the query “deep space (nine, 9)”
  2. I selected the category for DVD
  3. I selected “Buy It Now” for listing type
  4. I sorted from highest price to lowest

Let’s review the tricks I used:

  1. The () notation is how the eBay search engine does OR.  So I was able to find listings with both “nine” and “9” in them.  To be fancy, I could have used “DS9″ in there too, but it wasn’t necessary.
  2. Filter to DVD category to clean out other clutter.
  3. I figured Ikai didn’t want to bid on an auction
  4. Sorting from high to low is a counter-intuitive trick, but if you assume that the collection will be more expensive than individual DVDs, it makes sense.  I use this all the time with high priced items, since quality tends to float to the top.

I then scanned down the list to find the cheapest collection sold by a credible seller (someone with high feedback and % satisfaction).  And then I tweeted it to Ikai.

Would anyone else know how to do this? Would anyone else want to do this?

I do it, largely because I still love eBay, and because I actually know how to do it.  Plus, I really appreciate saving money on items like this, so the $115 is worth a few minutes.

But all I know is that if eBay can’t leverage it’s intrinsic price advantage with buyers like Ikai, then it has a serious problem.  They can never beat Amazon or traditional retailer e-commerce sites on trust and convenience.  They can, however, beat them on price and selection.

But customers have to be able to find those advantages to value them.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. As you mention, you don’t know what kind of query Ikai used to come up with the big price difference:
    “I’m not a 100% sure what Ikai did to identify the proposed “$350 price”.

    The answer could be hidden in your article itself: “The point is, despite the fact that Ikai is an engineer working at Google, he couldn’t find the item.”

    The fact that Ikai is now working for Google, might make him biased towards using Google products to find the right item to buy.

    Unfortunately, even the biggest and most powerful search engine in the world has problems understanding the eBay site as a whole.

    The reasons are two fold:
    1) eBay does not make it easy for Google & Co to understand the hierarchy of the site and its items
    2) Google & Co are based on historical crawls of the eBay site, which are not necessarily still valid given the fast changing nature of the eBay site.

    Where can eBay improve: eBay can improve by working together with the search engines to get their items indexed faster, and updated in real time
    Where can Google & Co improve: Open up to large sites like eBay, which have a valid and trusted place on the web

    February 2, 2010
    • It’s possible, but I doubt it. In fact, the Google Product search results for a general query here are just terrible. I did notice that a general search on Google did put the Amazon price up first, but Ikai clearly tried to find items on eBay. (Maybe he can comment).

      So, I don’t think this was a case of Ikai just using Google, and then basing his opinion of Amazon and eBay on what he found there.

      In any case, the issues I highlight in the post are true, regardless of whether or not Ikai used Google. Look at the query I entered at the top of the article – it’s a totally reasonable query and it gets you terrible results, from a value perspective.

      February 2, 2010
      • Point taken, and query sent to team to manually update for your convenience… (joking. I don’t have THAT kind of power)

        I always make the comparison between other merchants and eBay. Most of the time, eBay is still cheaper if you know what you want, and to search for it.

        One additional price advantage Ikai might want to look into is the Bing Cash back on fixed price items. That will bring him an additional 8% off at the moment :D

        February 2, 2010
    • I highly doubt you can consider Ebay a trusted place, not with their meddling and bias in how the feedback system works now.

      Adam, I just go to the comparison sites, because I dont really think ebays so interested in showing me the best prices any more.

      February 2, 2010
  2. Jay John #

    What eBay Shareholders should know!

    A good sign that things are very bleak at eBay… the below Sellers are posting Contact Information (phone numbers, web sites, email addresses) in their feedback left for others, on their item listing/description page and/or within their “eBay My World” page. Ebay refers to these practices as fee circumvention. In other words, if I was interested in purchasing an item from one of the sellers below, I could just contact the seller and we could work out a deal and cut eBay out completely… so the question is… why does eBay allow the below sellers to do so? Also, note longevity, locations of sellers and what they are selling!

    csrtechnologie ( 61482 ) [eBay Store] – 7 years 0 months OH,United States
    thewarstoreonline ( 1033 ) [eBay Store] – 10 years 5 months NY,United States
    buyatool ( 33452 ) [eBay Store] – 7 years 7 months United Kingdom
    skyteam2009 ( 5189 ) – 7 months China
    delightful-uk ( 26517 ) [eBay Store] – 3 years 2 months United Kingdom
    friend_of_ours ( 762 ) [eBay Store] – 3 years 9 months IL,United States
    zkarlo ( 80107 ) [eBay Store] – 12 years 1 month MN,United States
    cellularstream ( 33879) – 1 year 9 months IL,United States
    templates-queen ( 707) – 1 year 6 months NJ,United States
    danna ( 9592) – 12 years 1 month FL,United States
    seller_traffic ( 105) 1 year 7 months MS,United States
    m-na ( 316) – 7 years 4 months Germany
    phantom1976 ( 672) – 10 years 5 months NJ,United States
    mickeyskins ( 3822) 7 years 2 months NE,United States
    read*enjoy ( 3945) 4 years 9 months Netherlands

    I brought read*enjoy (a Netherlands eBay Trading Assistant) fee circumvention practices to eBay’s attention prior to this report and below is how read*enjoy left “feedback left for others” and note how eBay has NOW changed the feedbacks to “This comment has been removed by eBay”. But they missed this one! LOL!:

    Positive feedback rating readandenjoy.com would love to see you back again! Buyer: 0512phantasm ( 508 [Feedback score is 500 to 999] ) Oct-30-09 04:08– (#200395412531)

    And the eBay feedback changes go back to Jul-14-09 and then you can see they resort back to the original feedbacks with contact information!

    This fee circumvention can only be bad news for eBay. And I have a feeling we are going to be seeing more and more of it!

    February 2, 2010
    • Jay, to the best of my knowledge, eBay definitely does not condone nor support fee avoidance, and works carefully to avoid it. As someone who was in these meetings within eBay at times, I can tell you that the primary concern is rarely revenue, but the issues of security and fraud that can happen when sellers lure buyers “off the platform”.

      That being said, there are some items and categories where discussing the details over the phone is necessary to really close a transaction. Typically, these are the high cost categories like equipment, autos, etc.

      Adam

      February 3, 2010
  3. product based search for certain categories…

    February 2, 2010
  4. of course. I’ve been saying this ever since they changed over to the new system…what, has it been over a year now??

    they changed the way listings are ranked based on the seller’s standing in DSR’s (totally ridiculous, most buyers are annoyed by them, and will put lower grades in them just BECAUSE they are annoyed at having to fill them out! why do they care? they have their item from the seller! LOL!)

    Best Match is “worst match”.

    whoever though this search system up should be tarred and feathered.

    the old ebay search was the BEST anywhere. I’ve been a member since 1999 as well. I’m an old lady, and I can dig up anything on any search, I have a knack with words, as well.

    Lesson: if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!

    February 2, 2010
    • You may want to review some of my other blog posts on Best Match and DSRs. Needless to say, I actually disagree with you completely on all three of these points.

      The old eBay search was hopelessly broken. Simple misspellings would fragment the market, leading buyers to bad prices and poor item selection. Sorting by time left makes sense for auctions, but makes literally no sense for fixed price items.

      Sorting by relevance is absolutely the right solution. We can quibble about what factors are best to incorporate in a relevance sort, but waxing nostalgic about eBay in 1999 reflects more on what a pure auction marketplace looked like, rather than the current mix of auctions and fixed-price items.

      With eBay Express, our theory was that Auctions and Fixed Price had very, very different ideal buying requirements. Relevance sort is a key issue with fixed price items, as Amazon and Google would both attest to.

      You can also read my blog post on DSRs. The average DSR score for sellers is quite high, so I’m not sure how you’d conclude that people are putting low scores in them regularly. My DSRs tend to hover around 4.8 or 4.9, and I’m just a hobby seller.

      February 3, 2010
  5. Philip Cohen #

    There is a much greater problem for eBay buyers than simply a poor result from “search” for which they will probably be at least partially to blame for not specifying the best parameters.

    eBay (aka “the eBafia”) is a criminal organization!

    How could that be, you ask? Well, with much effort and some multi-auction analysis, it can be very clearly demonstrated (see the following link) that shill bidding fraud by unscrupulous professional sellers on nominal-start auctions, is rampant on eBay auctions, and the executives “in the know” at eBay, unless they are actually as stupid as they apparently think all we simple consumers are, cannot but be aware of that criminal activity (and, if indeed they claim to be not so aware, I am pointing it out to them here and now).

    [... several paragraphs deleted for brevity. The full article is referenced below. - Adam]

    The full ugly story at

    http://www.auctionbytes.com/forum/phpBB/viewtopic.php?p=6502877

    Surely, it is about time that some competent authority shone a strong light under this rock.

    February 3, 2010
    • Phil, I can tell you feel passionately about this topic, so I’ve let this comment stand. But in general, I don’t allow comments/discussions on topics that deviate too far from the original article.

      I obviously disagree with both your conclusion and the data/logic you use to reach it. I’m leaving your link in case other readers of this blog are curious and want to decide for themselves.

      February 3, 2010
      • Philip Cohen #

        So, you disagree with both my conclusions and the data on which I base those conclusions. Are you then saying that the masking of bidding IDs with non-unique aliases serves some purpose other than the obscuring of sophisticated shill bidding by unscrupulous sellers?

        Surely you aren’t going to quote eBay’s absurd reason that it was actually for the protection of buyers? Please, don’t do that; I was not born yesterday. Having said that I have long been of the opinion that if you want to understand what eBay means then you have to reverse the meaning of what they say.

        I would however be very pleased to hear any detailed rebuttal that you may care to make of the criticisms that I have made of eBay on what I believe is their quite deliberate criminal facilitating of sophisticated shill bidding fraud on buyers. Could I invite you then to reply to my criticisms on the auctionbytes forum.

        February 3, 2010
  6. Can I get your eBay ninja skills to work for me? I’m looking for an iPod Touch and an old G1 Android phone. What queries should I use?

    February 3, 2010
  7. Paperdetective #

    Ebay’s Search a problem?

    It lies much fundamental than that. The EBay culture is the problem.

    But to get back to one of the ‘cultural dysfunction’ symptoms, the lack of a usable Search, the reason why the Search does not provide what buyers and sellers need, is not technical.

    It is caused by ‘lack of vision’, ‘lack of communication skills’ and ‘lack of marketing know how’.

    The Search is a form of communication, like the entire Internet is a form of communication. Wrong online communication results in bad ‘messages’ (aka bad search results), no sales, site abandonment by buyers and sellers, etc. Recognize that?

    EBay has no vision on how to communicate, so how to search, but it could have one if it had the right knowledgeable visionaries.

    What EBay needs to start grasping is that its site serves a kaleidoscope of different markets, so different groups of buyers and sellers. There are car markets, house markets, jewelry markets, used book markets, old magazine markets, music CD markets, etc., on EBay.

    Each of those markets has both generic lingo to communicate, but also a large dictionary of market specific lingo.

    My market of old magazines talks about magazine titles, issue dates, publishers, authors, illustrators, market specific condition grading standards, cover subjects etc. The car market will talk about manufacturers, models, colors, options, market specific condition grading standards, parts, warranties etc.

    Each market (so buyers and sellers( have specific communication requirements, which should be reflected in Ebay offering different functionalities and content, depending on each market, so different searchability.

    Unfortunately that is not have EBay sees its role and that is why it fails, even its feeble attempt to expand its product catalog, so add more content to it.

    Only if EBay would commit to either purchasing/hiring know how and content to adapt the interface and content for each market (or if it would partner wit expert sellers and buyers),

    it would then stand a chance to improve its online communication, so also its Search and would, have a chance to regain the trust of the many buyers and sellers who left, which would stop its downward spiral.

    February 3, 2010
  8. Philip Cohen #

    Notwithstanding that eBay’s new default search, “Best Match”, is obviously no more than a clumsy, devious, attempt to steer buyers unfamiliar with search to those sellers that eBay is currently most profiting from, there is nothing seriously wrong with eBay’s search; you simply have to know how to use it.

    Aside from the devious “Best Match”, part of the problem here is that eBay does not describe the goods for sale; that is done by the many individual sellers, many of whom are simply amateurs and many think that their item should be found, or appear at the top of any list ahead of all others, regardless of how they have described their goods.

    Admittedly eBay’s search appears to be not as “smart” (I won’t use the word “sophisticated”, eBay habitually uses this word in such a way that they clearly have no idea what the word actually means) as that of some others, Google Search, for example.

    Unfortunately no search algorithm has an intelligence to match our own and if the seller doesn’t describe their goods appropriately and the buyer does not go to the trouble of learning how to best use/refine search then the buyer may not find what they are looking for, even though it may well be there.

    As Nash reminds us there are a number of ways a search can be constructed to zero in on what we are looking for, for example:
    In the category eBay Motors > Motorcycles, ‘BMW (K75RT, “K75 RT”, “K 75 RT”)’ should find such a model of motorcycle as long as the model designation is expressed as one of the those ways within the parentheses (it won’t find “K 75RT”). If not, then the seller may well be as disappointed as the prospective buyer.

    Did someone mention “communication”? The word does not appear in eBay’s dictionary! If the “bot” cannot handle the problem (and invariably it can’t) eBay does not want to now about it.

    February 6, 2010
  9. Jeff #

    Ebay is definitely going downhill. They try and take money from their users at every point! I don’t blame people for trying to circumvent their fees. They are way too high! I ‘ve actually been having success using an online buying and selling website called sellbits.com It is much simpler and a lot less expensive…

    February 8, 2010
  10. Liz #

    I commented on this (but in not such great detail) a while ago when I was looking for certain things for my Japanese themed wedding.

    As a 10 years plus user of eBay and consultant, I pretty much feel I can search on eBay now, but since best match eBay is shoving in my face items I don’t want and I either have to magically guess the correct title or conduct such a broad search that I scroll through hundreds of listings ( and on your iphone is a bit much)

    Most of my buying in the the Clothing category and however you filter down by category you always hit a large number of items. Buying off eBay takes considerable time these days, but only my longevity give me the persistence I need.

    General eBayers/shoppers might not be so determined.

    February 16, 2010
  11. Drew #

    Ebay suffers from more than just search problems.

    A. If Paypal wasn’t withholding and freezing so many accounts, then Ebay would have hundreds of thousands of more active sellers/buyers. Paypal has scared them off. This has been becoming ramped and the exodus is quite significant. They shot themselves in the foot on this issue.

    B. Ebay’s policies on disputes are harsh against sellers. How much documentation do they want? Currently, it’s nothing shy of the finger prints of your 27th cousin.

    C. Ebay/Paypal joint policies for victimizing sellers. This too is ramped. There are now public discussions going on, on how Paypal and Ebay are making it easier for scammers to steal from sellers, using Ebay/Paypal’s own policies to do it. If Ebay think sellers and Ecommerce shop owners using Paypal aren’t watching this and not paying attention, then they need to think again.

    That is only 3 subjects and probably one of the most trafficked subjects lately within the ecommerce world.. There are 20 more serious subjects I could list easily. Don’t need to though. Those there are enough to put them under.

    February 18, 2010
  12. Poon #

    Actually, the reason I have stopped using eBay is not searchability, but because it is no longer primarily an auction site, but an online store for anyone trying to turn a buck. Frankly, when I want to buy something outright I always go to Amazon, because they are always cheaper than eBay “sellers,” and Amazon offers free shipping (shipping is almost always a ripoff by eBay sellers) and buyer protection.

    In the last 8 years or so I bought and sold a ton of stuff (high dollar items) on eBay, but I haven’t bought or sold anything on eBay for about 2 years, and don’t foresee using it anytime in the near future.

    A Disgruntled Former eBayer

    March 11, 2010
    • I think my post almost explicitly demonstrates that the idea that “[Amazon] is always cheaper than eBay” is actually false.

      April 21, 2010
  13. Ebay suffers from more than just search problems.

    A. If Paypal wasn't withholding and freeaing so many accounts, then Ebay would have hundreds of thousands of more active sellers/buyers. Paypal has scared thek off. This has been becoming ramped and the exodus is quite significant. They shot themselves in the foot on this issue.

    B. Ebay's policies on disputes are harsh against sellers. How much documentation do they want? Currently, it's nothing shy of the finger prints of your 27th cousin.

    C. Ebay/Paypal joint policies for victimizing sellers. This too is ramped. There are now public discussions going on, on how Paypal and Ebay are making it easier for scammers to steal from sellers, using Ebay/Paypal's own policies to do it. If Ebay think sellers and Ecommerce shop owners using Paypal aren't watching this and not paying attention, then they need to think again.

    That is only 3 subjects and probably one of the most trafficked subjects lately within the ecommerce world.. There are 20 more serious subjects I could list easily. Don't need to though. Those there are enough to put them under.;

    March 11, 2010

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