by Jack Schofield
Like Google, eBay has become a verb, and users say things like: “I ebayed a dozen books last week.”
This reflects the fact that it has been around for a long time – since 1995 – and is hugely popular. It now has 233 million users in 37 markets, including the US and the UK.
Along the way, eBay has acquired a lot of rival sites and a few complementary ones, such as PayPal, Skype and the social bookmarking site, StumbleUpon. eBay also owns Gumtree, a popular small ads network, and 25% of Craigslist.
And although the basic service has not changed much over the past decade, eBay does try to innovate. Last week, for example, it introduced Neighborhoods, a new social networking service. It’s also beta testing a desktop program codenamed San Dimas, which allows users to do things while offline. This is pioneering software developed for AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime, which enables users to run Flash-based programs outside the confines of a web browser.
eBay recently introduced a Facebook widget that enables users to put listings on their Facebook page, and another dozen enhancements are in the works. In particular, it’s experimenting with a new search system called Finding 2.0. This is being used in “the Playground”, which is “a separate eBay site that lets you experiment with new features we’ve come up with, before we consider introducing them on the regular eBay site”. Note that all the auction items and bids are real: it’s not somewhere to play around. Finding 2.0 is a much-needed attempt to make search smarter. It would be nice if it was more reliable at finding things, too.
Social networking is obviously trendy, following the huge success of MySpace and Facebook. It also makes a lot of sense on eBay: it should help users with particular interests (eg Quad hi-fi not Quad Bikes) find one another and share information, and increase the level of confidence you feel when bidding. From eBay’s point of view, it could also encourage people to hang around on the site, and thus to sell or spend more.
However, eBay has a tendency to add whatever’s trendy without the new features ever making a significant difference. For example, how many people know that eBay already offers users their own blog, and how many people actually use them? eBay also has MyWorld, Groups, Reviews, Answers, chat rooms, a Wiki and the ludicrous MatchUps.
Maybe it’s just me, but all this stuff looks utterly pointless, and I won’t be surprised if Neighborhoods turns out to be a waste of time. The only things that make a real difference are the built-in mail and the discussion forums.
There are plenty of things eBay could do to improve its core service. These include better search, more detailed categorisation and tagging, more space for feedback (160 instead of 80 characters), quicker action against scammers, lower PayPal fees and a real help service. In comparison, adding Neighborhoods is trivial.