eBay Overhauls Site, Search

eBay is still the top site online when it comes to auctions, but it is starting to feel the heat. In an effort to recapture some of its old magic and make the site more useful to its visitors, eBay is performing its biggest overhaul in years. In this article and the next, we’ll take a look at the changes.

Is eBay an auction house or a tremendous shopping search engine? A few years ago I was somewhat active on the site as a buyer and a seller. Back then people were just starting to discover that they could make a full-time living selling stuff on eBay. It was the world’s biggest yard sale, and one of the first, most glorious examples of something that could only be done on the web.

eBay was born 12 years ago – before Amazon, before Google, and before many retailers had web sites. Now visitors can go to Amazon and order just about anything without having to wait for an auction to finish. Many items can be purchased new or used, with substantial savings on used items. Users of search engines such as Google and Yahoo – and that includes just about everybody who gets online – expect an engine that “knows” what they’re looking for and quickly delivers relevant results. Sadly, in these areas, the online auction giant is showing its age.

It’s a biological and economical truth: as things age, they grow more slowly. Growth, in this case, can be measured by a metric known as gross merchandise volume (GMV), which is the total value of all goods and services sold on eBay’s shopping sites. In the second quarter of this year, GMV was 12 percent higher than the same quarter in 2006. That may not sound bad…but in 2005, GMV for year-over-year quarters often reached 30 and 40 percent.

While one can argue that eBay is at least still growing, the stock market tells a less pleasant story. Since the end of 2004, the online auction giant’s stock has dropped slightly more than a third – 36 percent, to be exact. So what is eBay CEO Meg Whitman doing to change this? Judging from the overhaul, it starts with a renewed focus on the buyer.

Naturally eBay is all excited about its changes; you can get to a list that highlights them from a link on the home page. The home page itself has been redesigned. It’s much less cluttered than I remember, with far less space given to sellers promoting their items and more to categories and other things that eBay itself may be promoting (like eco-friendly shipping boxes, Jay Leno’s writing desk, and other sites owned by eBay).

Since eBay is still testing out its new search engine, when you go to click on the link to check out the new experience, you enter The Playground. “The Playground is a separate eBay site that allows us to experiment without changing the entire eBay site,” explains the splash page. “Although a few features of regular eBay are not available on the Playground, bidding and buying are real. The main difference right now is how you find items.”

Let’s try a search for a ball peen hammer. Normally, I’d expect to see a long list, maybe up to 100 on a page, of ball peen hammers of all kinds, with thumbnail images next to the titles of the items. I could do some kind of advanced search to either reduce or increase the number of my results (including by price range).

The results page I actually get is actually far more helpful, especially if I’m visually oriented. Let me show you what I mean:

 

Whoa! Instead of a list, we get a bunch of images. At the top we see how many items turned up: 52. Also near the top we see the product type; in this case, it’s only one type – ball peen hammers – but if we did a search for, say, needle-nosed pliers, we get something a little more interesting. We get a product type, namely “Single Pliers,” and a box for keywords – just “needle-nosed” in this case.

On the left side you’ll see some specific ways to narrow down the field. You can choose a brand, a price range, or click on other options. You can also enter information into another search box (not shown; sorry, it got cut off in my picture) to help you narrow the search. But even this isn’t the most “killer” part of the overhaul.

Here is the best part of getting that “wall of images.” Check out what happens when you hover over one of them:

 

As you can see, when you scroll over the item you get the time it ends with minutes remaining, a larger image, the title of the auction, and the current price. You can also click to read the full description and (assuming you’re logged in) add the item to your “watch” list.

It’s worth noting that the “wall of images” isn’t available for every category yet, though eBay aims to have most of the changes available to the majority of users in time for holiday shopping. I tried one of my personal favorite categories and saw a modified version of the wall of images. Basically, items with my chosen keywords showed up in two categories. Rather than show the plain wall, eBay showed four images from each category, and gave me the choice to click for more by separate category. It also didn’t offer the option of a larger view, though it did show me titles, current bid, and time to finish under each item.

Okay, ball peen hammers aren’t an especially visual search, but there are some items that you really want to be able to see the color for, such as shoes. (Stop laughing; you would have rolled your eyes if I said “beads.”). For certain items, you can now choose a color, and it’s not word-centric for the searcher anymore. Let me show you what I mean:

 

Remember that yellow bar to the left in the first screen shot? This is the kind of bar that shows up when you do a search for shoes – orange Nike shoes specifically, as recommended by eBay to demonstrate the new technology. As you can see, you can refine your search by choosing a product type and/or size merely by clicking. You can define a color and a price range by using the sliders.

eBay understands that the buyers and sellers both need to be there for the company to make money. If the buyers are not having a good experience, they’ll go elsewhere, and the sellers will follow. And these days, buyers don’t want to take a lot of time to do things. “Most consumers are just getting less patient to wait for things,” observed Jamie Iannone, vice president of eBay’s Marketplace Buyer Experience team. “We are trying to make it simpler, more personalized and more relevant.”

One example of this is the new Bid Assistant. If you buy items such as CDs, DVDs, books or other things that are not truly one of a kind, you might find this useful. The Bid Assistant lets the user group several desired items together and choose the highest amount that he or she wants to bid. The Bid Assistant then does the bidding automatically, and stops when it has won one of them for the user. As a quick note, Bid Assistant is only available to people with feedback of 5 or higher, so you need to actually have used eBay and received some positive feedback either as a buyer or a seller (or both).

Another example lets users bid with just one click in the final 15 minutes of an auction. You won’t have to constantly refresh the page in your browser to see whether you are still the high bidder. Instead, the page will display a smaller “layer” that will tell you how much time before the auction ends, what the current high bid is, and whether you are still the high bidder. Users will only need to refresh that small layer rather than the whole page. Refreshing that one section should happen much more quickly.

But there’s more going on with the changes to eBay than can easily be covered in one article. In the next article I’ll cover the changes eBay has devised to make life easier for the sellers, and talk about the social networking features it is adding. I also hope to cover how eBay is starting to look more like its competition.

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