An Open Letter to eBay

My Favorite Auction Site

October 2006

Part One is here...

V. Postage Due

Something I thought was very clever about eBay when it appeared was the self-policing nature of the site. Such schemes are common around the web today, but eBay's was one of the first I'd seen with such features. The search and, particularly, the rating system go a long way toward providing a buyer with the confidence to use eBay. This was especially important in the early days. Lately, some annoying trends have appeared that the system does not provide a good, clear way to discourage. One of these is price gouging on postage. For example, I recently received the following from a friend and fellow long-time eBay user:

"I was looking for a PCI USBII card for a pc at work. They are pretty cheap - like a few bucks. But some places were charging upwards of $20 to ship them. There were like 1341 listed when I looked so I had to wade through a few pages of listings before I found one for a reasonable *shipping* price."

This problem is exacerbated by sellers that do not fill in the shipping costs fields in eBay's listing framework. Dealing with this problem would be simple and quick without eBay having to use any heavy-handed requirements, by once again returning to the buyer community. It is possible to include the listing postage in your search results. This helps, but it is not the default. It should be. In addition to the ability to exclude specific sellers, eBay should make a maximum shipping cost an advanced search option.

VI. Miscellaneous Complaints and Other Comments

There's other more minor things I'd like to see changed about eBay. These are more matters of opinion however, not every eBay user may agree.

"Live" Auctions

It's interesting that eBay would opt to create a way to be involved in traditional live (in person) auctions. I can understand that this business would be attractive , and I can understand traditional auction houses having an interest in eBay. However, as a buyer, these auctions are just not what I'm after. My interests are in collectibles and generally odd objects, of interest to me, that other individuals out there don't want and post for sale. I like to think of eBay as the world's largest garage sale. Those kinds of person-to-person proxy auctions are eBay's strongest offering by far. Live auctions connected to traditional auction houses will invariably draw higher end goods, and buyers with deeper pockets (especially the in person buyers), and premium charges and other auction overheads drive up the prices. I'm not interested. If some people are, that's fine. There's is a simple solution; add a search option to exclude live auctions.

I've suggested additional search filters a number of times here. I can almost hear the objections from sellers that if buyers filter them out, they can't sell there items. To that I say, please read the above paragraph again. Some of us don't want to buy in some auctions. By preventing a search from filtering certain items, auctions or sellers, eBay is not going to "trick" a buyer into doing something they don't want to. What this lack of functionality in the search filter does do on the other hand is clutter up the results with items that are of no interest and provide a great opportunity for another auction provider to do it all better. Again eBay, sellers my provide revenue side, but without the buyers, you have no business model.

Nickels and Dimes

On the sellers side, I'd really like to see eBay stop charging tiny amounts of extra money for things that we all know don't actually carry any extra cost. I'm talking here about bold fonts, two lines of descriptive text, etc. which are all listing options that a buyer can pay a small amount extra to have. Instead, please charge whatever simple fee structure makes the whole thing pencil out, and make the web site look as simple and usable as possible.

The Front Page

The main page of eBay's site is incredibly busy and over done. For that matter, the whole site is that way. Take a lesson from Google. Keep it simple, clean, readable, fast and user-friendly.

Auction Services

I've mentioned this elsewhere, but it's an especially troubling trend, even when it's not annoying. There appears to be quite a small industry in listing items on eBay on behalf of others. The worst thing about this is that the services frequently do not operate within eBay's framework. It is really, really annoying to have to fill out a name and address web form again on winning an auction for no reason other than some eBay posting service won't actually use eBay. At it's worst, some of those don't take PayPal and won't communicate via email (through eBay or otherwise).

To anyone considering using a third party service to sell an item on eBay, please don't do it. Unless you have a really, really good reason (and some people do), please go ahead and use eBay directly yourself. It is not hard. Honestly. eBay has bent over backwards to make posting an item for sale and completing a deal as easy as it could possibly be. Everytime I end up buying something through one of these services I feel bad. Not only are the proceeds of the sale being dinged by eBay and, usually, PayPal, but the service is also taking a piece of the action. What's left for the seller? Sellers considering such a service should also realize that many buyers avoid these auctions (a fact which ironicly sometimes leads me to bid on them, since the prices obtained tend to be lower).

Browser Versions

It never ceases to amaze me that companies that depend on the web for their business, and are not makers of a web browser themselves, continue to use 'supported browser' guidelines as an excuse for not doing enough to generalize their web site (that is simply avoiding browser specific stuff). As of this writing (late October 2006), eBay has begun to get quite a bit more specific about browser support. Now I don't expect Netscape 4.7 to work everywhere, but it really is not that difficult, if not to officially "support", at least to make sure a very wide variety of browsers are likely to work well. HTTP, HTML and various Java related standards are really pretty good. By keeping it simple, and conforming to basic web facilities, a wide variety of past, present and future browsers will work acceptably well. Once basic security and session issues are taken into account, why does a web business like eBay need to be on the very cutting edge of web features where the exact browser, within reason, is an issue? If the browser has to be that specific to get something to work, just avoid that feature for now. Does eBay really want to turn away customers because of their O/S or browser choice? Does eBay have a business interest in turning away users that aren't using exactly the "right" software? That's a little like opening a fast-food place with a drive-through and putting up a sign reading "Sorry, no Fords."

VII. Conclusions

I have been an eBay user since 1997. When I first saw eBay I thought it was one of the most ingenious ideas that had yet appeared on the web. It's self-policing nature, and its limited role bringing together sellers and buyers of all sorts of things, particularly antiques and collectibles (in other words, junk), I thought was brilliant. Since then a number of improvements have been made. With the integration with PayPal, the My-eBay one-page tracking center, automatic searches, feedback, and the ability to print postage, buying, selling, shipping and tracking it all have been made about as simple and easy as their are going to get. All the while eBay's popularity grew until a certain critical mass was reached. It's hard to imagine an other site getting into the auction business in any meaningful way. It's eBay that has the traffic, today. But one of the things I hope eBay will realize is that the critical component of this traffic is the buyer, not so much the seller. If eBay does not make some badly needed course corrections, buyers will go elsewhere. And once enough of them do, the critical mass is lost and will never be recovered. Somewhere, right now, some smart people are sitting around thinking up what a better auction site might look like. Some of them will, eventually, actually build it.

I'm guessing, but eBay probably sees the seller side as the principle revenue stream. I hope eBay will consider that it is the sellers that can most easily shift that stream to another auction site. They will follow the buyers. Buyers on the other hand, are needed in a large mass for the concept to work at all. Lose that mass, and sellers will vanish. eBay discounts the buyer's online experience at its peril.

Search Improvements!

  • The search engine is buggy. Make it return correct and complete results.
  • Add an option for "any of these words" or "all of these words".
  • Simplify advanced search use.
  • eBay provides any number of ways for buyers to find sellers, add them as "favorites" and view other items offered. Add the ability for buyers to exclude selected sellers from searches.
  • Add the search selection on postage charged.

Make it work!

  • Getting the web pages to function properly every single time must be the top priority. If it doesn't work, everything else is pointless.
  • Cut down on graphics significantly.
  • Remove references to slow and unreliable external servers, such as, that reduce eBay's functionality and clutter the page, while doing nothing at all to improve the users' experience.

And More!

  • Get out of unrelated businesses.
  • Stop trying to compete with discount retailers.
  • Remember to think of the buyers' experience, not just the sellers'.
  • Focus on what made eBay a great service: online, person-to-person, auctions.

A lot of people are hoping eBay will change its course, and soon.

October 2006

Memo to eBay, Part One...

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