eBay: the Internet’s most successful bad idea

The first time I came across eBay, I was convinced it would never work. The idea of conducting anonymous financial transactions online seemed, on the best of days, insane. It’ll be fraught with scams and spam, I told my friends. No matter how many guarantees they offer their customers, they won’t be able to keep up with claims and disputes, both legitimate and fraudulent. Internet savvy con artists will find they can swindle dozens of victims simultaneously from the comfort of their own homes.

Now that billions of dollars find their way through eBay every year (yes, that’s billions), I’ll admit that I was wrong. I have a pretty good track record when in comes to predicting the success of new Internet technologies and businesses, but eBay was one that I missed. As it turns out, the good has outpaced the bad, and 11 years later, eBay continues to not only grow, but completely dominate the online auction space.

Only I wasn’t completely wrong. If you use eBay long enough, it’s pretty much a statistical certainty that you’ll eventually have a bad experience. I’ve been using ebay for over seven years now, and last weekend, my luck finally ran out.

I’ve been on sabbatical from my Product Management position at Adobe for about three months now, so I decided to start getting rid of a few disused toys I have lying around in order to keep at least a trickle of cash coming in. Last week, I tried to convert a PSP bundle and an iPod Video into cash, so I listed them on eBay. Both sold on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon, I had learned that both buyers are deadbeats. The PSP auction ended with sniper taking it for $300, then like any good sniper, vanishing into his surroundings to never be seen or heard from again. The other auction ended with "Buy It Now" in about 30 minutes, and has been a much more interesting experience. The buyer had no feedback whatsoever, so I didn’t have very high expectations, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and send an invoice anyway. Later that day, I received the following email:

Hello, how is you family and business? i just want to infrom u that i have made out my payment. once u get the comfirmation email from paypal pls get the iterm shiped.

Moments later, I received the expected forged PayPal email showing that I had been paid in full, and instructing me to send the iPod to, of all places, Nigeria.

Now I’ve been using eBay since 1999, and I’ve generally had pretty good luck, however an experience like this is enough to make you want defect to craigslist. Here’s my current situation:

  1. After trying to sell my items for a week, they still are not sold. If I try to list them again, if I’m lucky, it will be at least another week before I see any money. If I’m unlucky, I receive more forged PayPal emails from Nigeria, and the cycle starts again.
  2. As of today, I owe eBay a total of $43.94 for the pleasure of this experience. Yes, I know I can file a dispute, and I will, but it turns out eBay is more in the business of taking money than returning it. For one thing, I’m supposed to wait seven days before filing a complaint (just long enough for me to forget about the incident), and then who knows how long it will actually take to receive the credit or what other hoops I’ll be required to jump through.
  3. If I leave either of these gentlemen negative feedback, I risk them leaving me retaliatory negative feedback which will kick off another dispute process I don’t have time for. The unfortunate reality is that neither of these guys are worth risking the 100% positive feedback score I’ve earned over the last seven years.

Now that I’m disillusioned with eBay, I’ll go ahead take a few more jabs:

  • The interface is, at best, cumbersome. Any company that offers classes on how to use their online application probably needs to think a little harder about usability. My favorite part of the dispute process is when you are asked for the number of the item you are disputing, forcing you to go off on a copy and paste hunt in another browser tab. Why in the world would they not just list your last few transactions and let you simply check the one in question? (Because streamlining the dispute process would inevitably lead to more disputes.)
  • It’s expensive. During the course of a typical auction, you’re looking at insertion fees, up-sells ($.50 for a subtitle because the title field is too short, $.10 to schedule your auction’s start date, $1 to make your listing bold, $3 for a border, $5 to highlight it, $19.95 to feature it, etc.), "Buy It Now" listing fees, final value fees, PayPal fees, eventually “Skype Me” fees, and more. You could probably get out of a car dealership with fewer fees and surprises than an eBay auction.
  • Forced registration and sign-in. Click on "advanced search," spend 15 minutes crafting the perfect query, click "Search", and then… log in. If you’re going to let people use your application without registration, then let them use it without registration. Stop sneaking your login form in all over the place.
  • Banner ads. How totally Web 1.0. Does eBay make so little money off their dozens of fees that they need to further muddy their user interface with banner ads? Has anyone ever even clicked on one? Are banner ads still sold by the truckload of impressions? What year is it? Frankly, I thought banner ads faded off into obsolescence along with 3.5" floppy disks.
  • You know that endearing story about how eBay was started so the founder’s wife would have a place to buy sell collectible Pez dispensers online? Turns out it’s not true.

Ok, now I’m just getting petty. Although eBay has plenty of room for improvement, I have to admit, there are plenty of good things to say, as well:

  • Over the last seven years, I’ve probably bought and sold about 100 items on eBay with maybe a grand total of five bad experiences. That’s a 95% success rate. I’ve probably had as many problems with Amazon, or even my local mall. The difference is that I have to be far more vigilant with eBay. And I gave up buying off of eBay a long time ago because I found the savings just didn’t justify the risks. The other issue with eBay is that it’s inherently less convenient than Amazon or your local mall. If you find the digital camera you purchased from Costco isn’t as described, simply take it back for a hassle-free refund.
  • I believe that eBay knows their interface isn’t what it should be, but they have probably become a victim of their own success. I’m sure there are thousands of people out there complaining about the UI through feedback forms and forums, though I’d be willing to bet that every time eBay makes a change in an attempt to improve the experience, they generate thousands more complaints. I think eBay Express was the result of eBay finally throwing up their hands and deciding to create an entirely new interface. Smart.
  • Although eBay is a pretty monolithic company at this point, they are still managing to innovate with things like the eBay Wiki (complete with the requisite beta disclaimer), their new contextual auction ads named, appropriately enough, AdContext, and PayPal’s new mobile payment system.

So at the end of the day, am I still an eBay fan? I guess I am. And is craigslist a better alternative? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. (Craigslist hosts it’s fair share of the scams, as well, and in some ways, I’m no more comfortable dealing with strangers in person than I through the USPS.) But is eBay making itself vulnerable to a disruptive start-up? Absolutely. Online trading has already become a prominent theme of the Web 2.0 movement, and I think we’ve just seen the beginning. This time I won’t hazard a guess as to who will emerge as the dominant online trading platform, but I will say that I believe there are some serious opportunities.

Update (June 15): After talking myself into giving eBay another chance, I re-listed both the iPod and PSP. Not even an hour later, both had “sold” to brand new users, one with a feedback rating of 0 and another who somehow managed to get a feedback rating of -1 without his account being deleted. Now I have four dispute processes to look forward to in order to get out of paying eBay over $80 in fees for items that never actually sold. I’m finding it very hard to keep the faith here, eBay.

4 thoughts on “eBay: the Internet’s most successful bad idea

  1. I like to use another name for eBay, but since my little sis came out it doesn’t seem as funny…I had a crazy experience with a Nigerian that sent me a fake Cashiers Check overnight with a return address on the envelope of Denver CO. The check cleared the teller and the clearing house, and was only found to be fake when it was at the bank it was drawn against. After getting taken for almost $1400.00 I had to go to the FBI office here in Boise and it turns out the letter was tracked through FedEX to Britain. It’s a ring and they are inventive, creative and successful.
    The point I am making is that Nigeria sucks! I wish our Federal Gov’t would get out of our local and state issues, make some peace with the rest of the world so we can kick Nigerias A$$…I think that SPECTRE headed out of Nigeria now.
    ‘SPECTRE’…-James Bond-


  2. Feb. 2008. Ebay does not listen to complaints regarding even the most basic violations of common user interface standards. Go to the main ebay login page, type the userid, press TAB, type the password, press TAB, and, whoops, the focus does NOT go to the “Keep me signed in for today” checkbox as it should. Are we, the users, supposed to constantly jump back and forth between the keyboard and mouse? Come on ebay, TAB stops and focus control are known user interface issues that have been around for 20+ years now. This is a problem that should not exist on their user interface. Ebay has been informed about this particular problem repeatedly for the past few months – and they are not correcting it.


  3. A highly recommended site is elfingo.com for online auctions. They are the new ebay. Many smaller sites like this offer buyers far better deals than ebay ever could. Buyser also save a ton because this site charges little or nothing depending on the day. One more reaso I like elfingo.com is because they don’t take a part of the sale at all. No commissions or final value fees. A+++


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