Will Search “Save eBay”?
January 29, 2008
The Monday, January 28, 2008, New York Times, contained a short item that originally appeared in Bits, the technology blog “updated all day at nytimes.com/bits.”
The article in question carries this provocative headline: “The Plan to Save eBay: Better Search.” The author is Saul Hansell, whose writing I admire. I was tickled to learn his Web log entry made the leap from the Times‘s Web site to its printed newspaper. This revealed two facts to me: [a] the editors read what’s on the New York Times‘s Web site, a very good sign, and [b] the Web log itself contained newsprint-worthy information.
I want to quote a small snippet in which John Donahoe, the new eBay boss, is the primary source of information for the story. (I urge you to read the original posting or newspaper article.) I added the bold because I want to reference some of these words in my discussion of eBay.
“Let’s say you wanted to buy a BlackBerry, he [Donahoe] said. Last time I [Donahoe] checked, we had 25,000 BlackBerry listings.This is a fairly confusing experience. A year from now, you will be able to say, ‘I want a BlackBerry. Boom. Show me the latest models at the cheapest price.’ The same screen, he added, will show used and older models as well. ‘We also want to surface the six-month old version, still brand new, that may be in an auction format because its value is less certain, he said.”
As I understand this statement, eBay is going to [a] improve search because getting 25,000 results is confusing, and I agree, [b] maybe support voice search because the phrase “you will be able to say” seems to suggest that functionality, and [c] eBay “will show used and older models as well”. The word “show” connotes some graphical representation or interface innovation to help users make sense of 25,000 BlackBerry listings.
Any one of these technology-centric fixes would be a lot of work and could take considerable time. A year seems too little time to get these innovations planned, procured, debugged, and online for customers.
I know from my search work that most users don’t feel comfortable with laundry lists of results. I generally look at the auctions closing within a few minutes or check out the “Buy It Now” products. I no longer rummage through eBay’s sorting and filtering functions. For me, those functions are too hard to find. I prefer Google’s approach to its “Sort by Price” function. I also like eCost’s sending an email with time-sensitive deals. I want what I want now with the least hassle, the lowest price at that moment, and the simplest possible interface. Let’s look at some of the words I highlighted in the article.
I’m puzzled by the notion of Mr. Donahoe’s use of the word “surface”. I am not sure about its meaning in this context. “Surface” makes me think of whales, as in “Save the whales.”
When Mr. Donahoe’s uses the word “say”, I thought of my mobile phone speech recognition function. I talk to my phone now, mostly unsuccessfully. I do use Google’s voice recognition service for 411, and it’s pretty good. My mobile phone has a small screen, and I can’t figure out how eBay will be able to display some of the 25,000 results so I can read them. I use the new Opera mobile browser. I don’t like its miniature rendering of a Web page. When I want to look at something, Opera uses a zoom function that is a hassle for me to use on my mobile’s Lilliputian keyboard. eBay has to do better than Opera’s interface.
Most of the gizmos I look for on eBay or Google’s shopping service come in quantities of a couple dozen if the product is even available. For example, I recently scoured the Web for a replacement fan for one of my aging Netfinity 5500 servers. Zero hits for me on eBay the day I ran the query. I fixed the fan myself. Last week, I tried to buy a Mac Mini on eBay, but I got a better deal through Craigslist.
Enough old-guy grumpiness.
I knew that eBay’s search system was and is a work in progress. Years ago, the eBay Web site carried a Thunderstone logo. I assumed that Thunderstone, a vendor of search systems, provided search technology to eBay. Then one day the little blue Thunderstone logo vanished. No one at Thunderstone would tell me what happened. Somewhere along the line, Louis Monier (a search wizard) joined eBay. Then he jumped to Google, and I don’t know who had to fill his very big shoes. I asked eBay to fill me in, but eBay’s team did not respond to me. I call this search churn. It’s expensive and underscores a lack of certainty about how to deliver a foundation service in my experience.
But I really wasn’t surprised at the lack of response to my email.
When I have a problem with an eBay vendor who snookers me, I have had time-consuming work to get to a human. Someone told me that I have a negative reputation score because I am a “bad buyer”. I don’t sell anything on eBay, but I suppose eBay rates customers who grouse when a sale goes out of bounds.
Search won’t fix a business model, customer support, and giving annoyed customers a grade of “D” in buying. To my way of thinking, search is not eBay’s only problem. Search is not eBay’s major problem.
One of my colleagues in San Francisco told me that eBay was reluctant to license his software because eBay’s system at that time was “flaky”. His word, not mine. At that time eBay was relying on Sun Microsystems’ servers. I was a Sun Catalyst reseller and a Sun cheerleader. I know that, in general, Sun boxes are reliable, fast, stable, and scalable when properly set up and resourced. Ignore Sun’s technical recommendations, and you will definitely have excitement on your hands. When I hear rumors of high-end systems being “flaky”, I’m inclined to believe that some technical and management mistakes were made. Either money or expertise is in short supply, so a problem gets a temporary fix, not a real fix.
After reading the New York Times‘s article, I asked myself, “Is eBay so sick it has to be saved?”
For example, I bought a watchband on eBay not long ago, and everything worked as I expected. I used the search engine to find “brown watchband 20mm”. I got a page or two of results. I picked a watchband, won the auction, and I paid via PayPal — actually tried to pay. I had registered a new credit card a few weeks before the purchase. Before I could consummate my purchase, I had to locate a secret four digit number printed next to a $2 eBay transaction on my last credit card statement. After coming home from a 18-day trip , I had a hefty credit card statement. Hunting down the secret code definitely put a hitch in my getalong, but I found the number after some hunting. About a week later my watch band arrived. I liked its hot pink color and its 18mm width. Yep, another eBay purchase that went awry. I lived with the error. I’ve learned that when I file a negative comment about a transaction, I get emails from the offending merchant asking me to revise my opinion. I don’t need busy work.
Now let’s think about this “save eBay” effort. When I was in Australia in November 2007, the Australian government said it would take action to protect the whales. I didn’t think this would help. There are more whale hunters than Australian patrols. The Pacific ocean is a big expanse. Whale hunters with radar, infrared sensors, Google Earth, and super-tech harpoons can find and kill whales more easily than Australians protective forces can find the whale killers.
If “save eBay” is like saving the whales, eBay has a thankless job to do. But just fixing search won’t save eBay. The business processes and the business model need some attention. eBay’s new president (the former blue-chip consultant) is putting in place a one-year program in which search plays a leading role. eBay is going to use its “closed transaction data” to be smarter about using those data to “provide the most relevant search experience.”
I am confident that a Bain consultant can deliver on his agenda. What bothers me is that I think his timeline lacks wiggle room. He has to clear some hurdles:
First, annoyed sellers who are looking for other ways to move products.
Second, annoyed buyers who look for other ways to move their goods.
Third, the “new” or “better” search system.
Fourth, increasingly complex security actions that remind me that maybe eBay is not as secure as I believed it to be.
If the new president can’t revivify eBay, we might be looking at an eAmazon or a Google-Bay. If eBay swings for a search home run, it won’t be enough. eBay has to make more informed decisions about its customers, security, sellers, and business model. Otherwise, eBay may be an ecommerce whale pursued by some hungry sushi lovers.
Stephen Arnold, January 28, 2008