Category Archives: ebay

Former eBay scientist complains of “Dilbertian compromises”

Former eBay scientist Raghav Gupta – who composed a farewell poem – has given an interview in which he talks about the difficulty of getting innovations deployed at eBay:

There is actually a lot of good innovation happening nowadays in terms of demos and prototypes and contests, but hardly anything worthwhile ever makes it out. The personal cost of having to push something down the approval and implementation pipeline is so great that very few are able to persevere. And whatever does get out usually suffers through so many Dilbertian compromises that it is missing the core aspect of the original idea.

You should never judge a company on the basis of comments from departed employees (though Gupta left of his own volition). That said, there is plenty of evidence that eBay is pursuing a policy that is punishing sellers (that is, its customers) in favour of buyers, as well as increasing its fees. The bizarre ratings policy, in which sellers rated as good by buyers get suspended, is one example. Good sellers get suspended for other reasons too, apparently, and I have learned a new bit of jargon as a result – “dolphin”:

Dolphins are those sellers that get suspended by eBay because their system automatically singles them out for skirting the rules or something more grievous, yet if a human actually looked at the sellers account they would find it was a simple mistake and now they are screwed.

according to Randy Smythe, who is chronicling Dolphin stories on his blog.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that eBay’s default search results (which you cannot change globally) are now ordered in what it calls “Best Match”, according to an unknown algorithm, rather than the old system of “Time: Ending soonest”. This change gives eBay the ability to promote sellers it likes at the expense of sellers it does not like – though I do not know whether it uses Best Match in this way. If your items are always several pages away according to “Best match”, it is unlikely you will make many sales. Sellers are now having to discuss “Best Match” optimization techniques similar to Search Engine Optimization on the wider web.

Plenty of frustration for small sellers, then, and the trend at eBay seems to be towards fixed-price sales from large vendors, though of course you can still grab an auction bargain on occasion.

Gupta suggests that sellers get together and invent an alternative eBay on a mutual ownership basis. A nice idea, though eBay is dominant and it won’t be easy to dent its market share. Most disgruntled sellers seem to head for Amazon marketplace.

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Why you can’t trust a Google ad

An interesting facet of the recent problems with UK non-supplier Zavvi Direct is that all the purchasers I spoke to found the fake web site via a Google ad. Put another way, without the ease of advertising through Google and eBay, it is likely that far fewer people would have found the site and potentially lost their money.

That raises the question: does Google do anything to verify that its advertisers are genuine? Here’s the answer, from a Google spokesperson:

Google, along with other online and offline advertising platforms are not able to proactively check the legitimacy of each and every advertiser. Consumers should always check the validity of what is being sold to them and how they are asked to pay for items. If Google is alerted to a potential fraud then we will work with the relevant legal authorities to help them resolve such matters.

This was clarified to me as follows. Google will assume ads are OK unless it receives complaints. If it receives a few complaints it might pass them on to the merchant. If it receives numerous complaints it might warn the advertiser and eventually disable the account.

I guess it is unreasonable to expect Google to conduct checks on every advertiser. Still, there is a related point: does Google do enough to highlight the difference between advertisements, and links identified by its famous search ranking algorithms? Here is a snapshot of a search I just made:

I’ve sized the browser small to get everything in; there are more search results than I’ve shown. However, it shows three panels of results. The top left is tinted and marked in unobtrusive gray type “Sponsored links”. The top right is narrow, not tinted, and also marked in gray type “Sponsored links”. The bottom left is what most tech-savvy folk think of as the main results area.

Judging by my interviews, some people are not really aware of the distinction between a “sponsored link” and a search result. In some cases, the buyer could not tell me what kind of link they clicked. To them it was just “Google”.

It would be easy to make the ads more distinct. Google could use the plain English “Advertisements” rather than the “sponsored links” circumlocution. It could use something bolder than gray text to identify them. It could use a different font and colour for the links in the right-hand column. It is good that the top left links are in a tinted panel; yet some may perceive this simply as best-match links, rather than links in an entirely different category than those that follow.

Overall, it seems to me that Google deliberately makes its ads look the same as search results. Which is good for advertisers, but can be bad news for buyers.

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eBay insisting on PayPal only in the UK

I’ve just listed an MP3 player for sale on eBay in the UK. I was surprised to see that I was required to accept PayPal and only PayPal for the transaction, making the “Decide how you’d like to be paid” section of the form redundant:

It is not even possible to state that someone who collects personally may pay cash.

As I understand it, eBay is not applying this rule to all transactions. I suspect this one is regarded as higher risk because it is electronics. The company justifies it on the grounds of security; but since eBay owns PayPal, and gets a double-dip on the fees for transactions processed by PayPal, it has other incentives.

I don’t like this. It is a step backwards; I prefer to have control over what payments are acceptable. I still listed it though, since Amazon (the obvious alternative) is even more expensive, and also acts as payment provider.

eBay has run into some trouble over this policy in Australia; I wonder if the UK will make a similar fuss?

Update: I’ve discovered that eBay UK is now forbidding payments other than PayPal on the following types of sale:

1) Sellers using a 1-day listing format

2) Sellers listing in these categories:

– Video Games > Consoles

– Consumer Electronics > MP3 Players

– Computing > Software

– Wholesale & Job Lots > Mobile & Home Phones

– Business, Office & Industrial > Industrial Supply/ MRO

There are some broad categories there. Further, I presume that once eBay starts restricting some sales to PayPal only, it will be tempted to extend the list further.

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Have you found an AIR app you actually use yet?

Today I downloaded the BBC’s new Adobe AIR application, BBC Live.

This installs as a system tray app on Windows. It’s a beta. Nice little app; but it’s competing against my existing RSS reader which is subscribed to the BBC news feed. The AIR app is much prettier, has images, and lets you customise the feed easily. However, the RSS reader deals with lots of feeds; and I can’t imagine running a separate application for every one. The advantages of the BBC app are rather small compared to the convenience of using a single application for multiple news sources.

Lifehacker recently published a list of the top ten apps worth installing Adobe AIR for. The list had a contrary affect on me, since there is nothing there that I find really compelling. I tried the eBay Desktop app, for example, but much prefer visiting the web site.

So … personally, I’m still waiting for an AIR app to love. But I’d be interested to know what others are running and finding useful.

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Amazon, eBay, FaceBook: the risk of building your business on a third-party platform

We are seeing web giants flex their muscles. Here’s three instances.

FaceBook’s frequent platform changes make it tough for small developers to keep up – I blogged about this recently.

Amazon declares that Print on Demand sales on its site must use its own printing system, causing consternation for rivals like Lightning Source.

Ebay changes its terms for sellers, removing the option to give negative feedback to scam buyers and increasing final value fees from 5.25% to 8.75% (a 67% increase).

In each case, the losers can fume and complain; but there’s little else they can do, other than withdraw their business. Ebay, FaceBook and Amazon have the right to as they want, within the law, with their web sites. Unfortunately, withdrawing your business from the dominant platform in each field (social networking, web retailing, auction sales) is likely to be even more expensive than gritting your teeth and putting up with it – at least, that’s what the big guys are counting on.

The problem: it’s high risk to have a third-party control your platform. This is something the music industry has belatedly recognized in respect of Apple’s iTunes.

I expect to see more of this, as the biggest players change focus from buying market share with low prices and free services, to trying to monetize their existing share more effectively.

PS: I realise that FaceBook is in nothing like the same position of strength within its market as Amazon or Ebay; nevertheless there seems to be a parallel to do with lack of control over your destiny.

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