eBay Search needs to get smarter

No primary category set

needle in haystackA few weeks back I was looking for the complete boxed set of all seven seasons of The West Wing on eBay. As you would, I searched for “West Wing DVDs complete” – and turned up hundreds. The problem was that rather than being what I wanted, they were the complete season 1, the complete season 2, and so on.

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought to myself, if Best Match was clever enough to see that I hadn’t specified a season, even though tWW has seven, and to figure out that what I’m *probably* looking for, then, is the complete complete set, rather than any one season, and show me those first.

And then, coincidentally, Adam Nash wrote a post about the same thing. If you don’t know Adam, he used to work for eBay, and he is exceptionally smart, so when his colleague Ikai unfavourably compared the prices of Deep Space 9 DVD sets available on eBay and Amazon, he set out to figure out why eBay looked like such a bad deal.

Here’s what he found (republished with permission).

When I searched on eBay, I found literally dozens of items priced below $300 [Amazon’s shipped price was $313], many of which were from top sellers, and many of which that offered returns. In fact, I saw items as low as $130, but I tried to find the lowest priced item that matched the quality of service Ikai would expect from an Amazon third party seller.

Of course, I’ve been on eBay since 1998, and I spent years working on structured data and search products at eBay, so I have a hunch why I found the items and he didn’t.

He typed the wrong query. My guess is that he typed something like this “Star Trek DS9 season 1-7” in the DVD category. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, this only returns two items, the cheapest of which is $299.

Despite years of investment, the eBay search engine still doesn’t understand that “DS9 = Deep Space Nine”, and that “1-7” is a range, and that “season” is an attribute that DVD sets for television series can have.

Now, what I did do? Simple:

1. I typed the query “deep space (nine, 9)”
2. I selected the category for DVD
3. I selected “Buy It Now” for listing type
4. I sorted from highest price to lowest

Let’s review the tricks I used:

1. The () notation is how the eBay search engine does OR. So I was able to find listings with both “nine” and “9” in them. To be fancy, I could have used “DS9” in there too, but it wasn’t necessary.
2. Filter to DVD category to clean out other clutter.
3. I figured Ikai didn’t want to bid on an auction
4. Sorting from high to low is a counter-intuitive trick, but if you assume that the collection will be more expensive than individual DVDs, it makes sense. I use this all the time with high priced items, since quality tends to float to the top.

I then scanned down the list to find the cheapest collection sold by a credible seller (someone with high feedback and % satisfaction). And then I tweeted it to Ikai.

Would anyone else know how to do this? Would anyone else want to do this?

I do it, largely because I still love eBay, and because I actually know how to do it. Plus, I really appreciate saving money on items like this, so the $115 is worth a few minutes.

But all I know is that if eBay can’t leverage its intrinsic price advantage with buyers like Ikai, then it has a serious problem. They can never beat Amazon or traditional retailer e-commerce sites on trust and convenience. They can, however, beat them on price and selection.

But customers have to be able to find those advantages to value them.

12 Responses

  1. “Would anyone else want to do this?”
    If they knew the benefits … YES! But they would complain about having to go to the trouble … “Computers are supposed to be smart”

    “Would anyone else know how to do this?”
    – That’s a much better question, and I have a third one for you:
    “Would anyone else know they NEED to do this?”

    I know a few buyers who
    (a) don’t know the syntax for logical expressions,
    (b) would not be able to structure a search query correctly and
    (c) would not even consider such a thing as being needed.

    They just don’t have programming minds.

    The limit to their capabilities is reached when I show them the minus trick, which they grab with glee. I have seen search strings where there list of minuses disappears outside the search box, sometimes by quite a bit.

    But they are happier. It may not be the most effective or efficient solution, but at least they have a tool that empowers them and they have persisted in their searching – whereas before they’d just throw in the towel when greeted with thousands of listings to trawl through.

    By forcing the practical understanding of logic syntax in searches, ANY provider is disenfranchising a large number of potential customers.

    Potential customers – with money they’re ready to spend……. somewhere else.

  2. To make things even more interesting …

    I just did the “Star Trek DS9 season 1-7? search the original article claimed. For the cheaper item it has S&H at $0.25 (US) but if you read the fine print in the listing it is really $14.50. Clearly a policy violation.

    The seller he picked though is from Canada. That means you are stuck with an additional cost of around 3% (about $6) and have to wait additional weeks or up to a month for it to pass through customs. If I were in his situation I’d have gone with the next lower price (a $25 savings) and bought it from someone domestic.

  3. I know my brother struggled to find things on ebay. The TSR search really confused him. As he thought by clicking this he would see the best sellers first and then everyone else underneath. So when only a few items came back he thought that was all there was listed on ebay needless to say he told everyone how little there is on ebay now and he only shops on Amazon.

    It would be great if ebay could have a link to the abreviation / commands to narrow searches. I did not know about using () and I have been buying and selling on ebay for years

  4. Speaking of search working or not. It is completely broken at this very minute. No results for any query.

    We were unable to run the search you entered. Please try again in a few minutes.

  5. Asking an ebay programmer to think like a customer (or a seller for that matter) is like asking them to do their jobs properly.
    It aint gonna happen!

  6. “the $115 is worth a few minutes”
    Adam Nash

    Mildly disingenuous considering far too many of these eBay super bargain Star Trek DVDs are bootlegs. Abet fewer now that Paramount is taking more of an interest.

    “They can never beat Amazon or traditional retailer e-commerce sites on trust and convenience. They can, however, beat them on price and selection.”
    Adam Nash

    We’ll take trust a product is genuine, over price and questionable quality.

    But if all a buyer wants is to search for a cheap copy of those episodes, that’s what they’ll get.


    “Every man has his price.”
    Rule of Acquisition #98


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