eBay Opens Social Networks

When you’re the biggest online auction house around and you’re starting to feel the competition breathing down your neck, what do you do? If you’re eBay, you borrow a bunch of ideas from your competition and try to make them your own. In this second article of a two-part series looking at eBay’s changes, we’ll see what else the site has done for its customers, both buyers and sellers.

Last time we talked about what eBay did to make searching for something to bid on more like window shopping. We mentioned the “wall of images” approach, and how hovering over a single image brought up more detailed information about the item. We talked about eBay’s new Bid Assistant, designed to help buyers win the items they want more often without having to closely monitor the site. We even mentioned the new one-click bidding approach, to help cut down on nail biting when an auction is in its final 15 minutes.

Greg Sandoval of CNet found some other searches and search results that showed eBay is still in the process of experimenting. Sandoval tried putting in the search term “Nikon D40” and saw a page different from the “wall of images” I’d seen for my searches. Instead, he saw a page with two photos of different models of the camera. “The pictures were much larger than the thumbnails typically found in eBay’s results,” Sandoval noted. “Below the photos were ratings of the cameras, links to customer reviews, and the range of prices.”

Further changes are on the way. Sandoval said that eBay may soon begin offering views of the same item from different angles. But coming back to what Sandoval saw, further down this camera page were “tabs labeled Overview, Listings, Reviews…followed by technical and product details and descriptions as well as a listing of products that other customers have bought after purchasing the camera.”

Scot Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor, seemed pleased with the changes. His company sells ecommerce software tools to small- and medium-sized businesses. Of the example Sandoval gives, he says that “These features have existed on the site, but never in an aggregated or simple way to find. This is a much more Amazon way of buying.”

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to reproduce Sandoval’s experience. As it turned out, however, he simply clicked through on one of his results to get to the page he described. Here’s something visual to go with all those words in the previous section:

 

I know, having to reduce the image means you lose a lot of detail, but you can see the tabs and the description, and that there are more listings. Scrolling down the page reveals product reviews, and that members can create product descriptions. Over on the right hand side, eBay offers users the following options:

  • Save this search
  • Add to Want it Now
  • Sell one like this
  • Blog it

I’d like to point to the "Sell one like this" option as a way that eBay is trying to make things easier for its sellers as well as its buyers; after all, on eBay, they’re often the same people. As I understand it, using this function makes the process of starting an auction go more quickly because a lot of the information required by the form is already filled in. I believe there are other ways to access this function as well.

So is eBay truly becoming more like Amazon? I must be one of the five or six people in the US who have never bought anything from Amazon, but even I know that some of the features Sandoval listed as popping up for his eBay search are used by Amazon. In particular, the list of products that other customers bought after buying the item displayed strikes me as distinctly Amazonian. So I had to do a search on Nikon D40 on Amazon to compare.

 

There’s no way I could do the listing on Amazon justice. It includes a LOT of stuff, and I couldn’t scroll to get all of it in the picture. But many of the items it includes – product reviews, product descriptions, how many are available, etc. – are also present in an eBay listing now. The layout is very different, of course, but whether it’s on eBay or Amazon, there are advantages to having all this information in one place. It makes it a lot easier to do your research when you’re looking for something.

If users are doing research on eBay, they’re likely to be staying on the site longer, but making more efficient use of their time. The changes discussed in the previous article are also aimed at increased efficiency. So what will users do with that extra time? That’s where Neighborhoods come in.

eBay’s blog describes Neighborhoods as “ideal micro-communities: groups of people centered around a shared passion for particular products or activities.” Neighborhoods feature discussion boards, snapshot views of related products, related reviews, guides, and blog posts. Neighborhood members can vote on pictures submitted by other members. Apparently, Neighborhoods are somewhat flexible; “the Harrison Ford neighborhood might show listings for Star Wars or Indiana Jones,” eBay explained.

I started looking for Neighborhoods, but couldn’t find them. What I did find, however, was a substantial amount of community activity. The site already features a ton of different discussion boards. Neighborhoods are supposed to offer more, but apparently haven’t launched yet. Nathan Sacco, one of the people responsible for the user experience at eBay, noted that they would be focused around the interests that people have listed in their My World profiles.

This showed me how long I’d been away from eBay, as I didn’t have any idea what a My World profile was. But no, when I went to the help pages to find out, I discovered it was similar to things I’ve seen before. (I was thinking of About Me pages, but apparently those are different from My World pages). But eBay had expanded what could be put on it from what I remembered. Users could add content to tell the community about themselves using some pre-set modules, including ones for favorites, a bio, a blog, a guest book, and reviews and guides.

One thing that is nice is that you can now use My World to find users with similar interests. You can either put the interest into the appropriate search engine when you’re at My World, or you can use the tag cloud. Let me show you the screen shot for myworld.ebay.com so you can see what I mean:

 

You can see the tag cloud on the right. Oh by they way, all of those images in the center? They aren’t just for show; they’re user avatars. Every time you hover over one, it enlarges and shows the user’s handle. Clicking on the image takes you to that user’s My World page. In short, eBay is trying to reinvent itself, at least in part, as a social site.

In short, eBay’s recent overhaul is a huge change from the days when hard-to-see thumbnails nestled to the left of brief text descriptions that linked to much longer text descriptions. Sellers no longer need to put misspellings into their descriptions (making them more verbose) to ensure that buyers will find the items; they can tag items behind the scenes when they put in the description, and eBay’s search engine is now set up to spot more common misspellings and figure out what the buyer means. Common abbreviations such as “sz” for “size” supposedly don’t confuse it anymore.

Will these changes give eBay the boost it needs? Certainly, the early feedback has been positive, if a little impatient. “We would have liked to see this focus on the core marketplace for the last three or four years,” said Wingo. If these changes are to stick, though, they’ll have to run deeper than the merely cosmetic; eBay may have to reorient its organizational structure. An article in Business Week noted that the company used to be divided by specialty, separating engineers and marketers who worked on the same project; now everyone working on a particular project is grouped together, allowing for a faster and more natural flow of communication between people on the same team.

Challenges remain, of course, and one of them was bred from eBay’s earlier success. The auction site attracts both the casual and the serious when it comes to buying and selling, and any change that pleases one group is likely to upset another. For example, eBay Express lets users load several fixed-price items into one shopping cart and check all of them out at once. It’s great for shoppers, but really finicky sellers may begrudge how easy it makes it for users to shop with several sellers at once.

So what’s the take-home message here? Site owners need to be very aware of how visitors are using their web site, and design around this user experience. If you own a well-established web site, acknowledge the possibility that your customers may be changing their habits. Realize that they have experiences outside your web site, and that they can always go somewhere else.

It’s likely that the growth of a more visual, image-oriented web with social sites helped inspire eBay’s changes. If your users want a more visually-oriented experience on your site — and let’s face it, some things are easier to find when you can SEE them — find a way to give it to them without sacrificing too much in the way of how quickly your site loads (there are technologies that can help with that).

Oh, and one more thing: remember that competition isn’t always direct. Amazon didn’t start by offering auctions on its site, but now it is serious competition for eBay. So keep your eye on what your competition is doing — even if it isn’t your most obvious competition.

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