Earlier this week eBay launched ToGo Widgets for any listing. These slick, Flash-based widgets can be embedded into blogs, social network profiles and in general any page that does not explicitly forbid Flash. The idea is simple - let users promote their eBay activity everywhere online. Sounds simple - and one can't help but wonder what took them so long? To answer this question, we decided to look at other things that eBay has released recently, to try to decipher the strategy and competitive plays of this web giant.
New Services from eBay
The bottom section of eBay's from page features their new releases. Right away we noticed that there is a big range of services aiming at different user activities. The first service is Deal Finder, a combination of a simple dashboard and search that allows users to see featured hot deals - as well as search for hot deals by keyword. The 'hotness' of the deal is determined by a combination of price and expiration of the auction.
The next service is called eBay My World, which is an attempt at personalized/shared pages. It is very basic and raw, to the point that it would be difficult to imagine people using it. This is meant to be an eBay specific profile, blog and an aggregate of both preferences and stores - but it just feels like a lot of work for the user to do from scratch.
The next service is eBay Express WishList. eBay Express is just a quick way to bypass auctions and to do straight shopping. With Express, when you find an item you can purchase it at a fixed price. So having the WishList feature here is quite handy.
eBay Pop is probably the coolest of all the new features. It is a stock-market style elegant view of eBay popularity trends. It's slick and gadgety - and even from a quick look it is quite meaningful. This piece of eBay is powered by a Seattle-based comparison shopping company called mpire.
Finally, Map it service allows you to search and organize eBay listings georgraphically. In addition to standard search terms, the user has to supply a city or a zip code to get the results. The results feature a fairly boring map from MapQuest and every listing has a distance in miles from the specified zip code. Craigslist works great geographically, because it is about classifieds; but why would it matter where my iPod is coming from? Possibly difference in shipping costs, but this seems to be such a trivial feature that it should be part of the main eBay search interface. As it stands, it is difficult to see any good use for this particular new service.
To summarize, while some of these new eBay offerings are interesting and could be adopted by eBay members, collectively they don't really make sense. The lack of an integrated user experience, a coherent UI and understanding of the user flow, plays against wide acceptance of these services. Since each service is done by a different team and has its own UI language and metaphors, the users are going to be confused.
eBay does Widgets
Next we take a deeper look at the ToGo widget service. The verdict is that it's slick, fun and impressive. There are three types of widgets: single item, multiple items or search. Techies and visual effect afficionadoes will be pleased with the intelligent use of effect - both to configure the widgets as well as looking inside the widgets. A single auction widget can be created either by keying in the item id or browsing through the items.
Since auctions expire, the eBay widget team came up with a clever reason to compel the user to keep the widget up and running. After expiration, the widget will show a listing of items based on a certain keyword. This is clever, but it is unclear if users will use this feature - or just take down the widget.
Will distributed auctions work?
Technically, the eBay widget falls a bit short of a distributed auction - because bidders need to click though to the eBay webpage in order to place a bid. Nevertheless, it comes pretty close. It's been said many times that widgets are very useful in this era of the Web, as Fred Wilson explained eloquently on his blog. His four rules state:
- Microchunk it - Reduce the content to its simplest form.
- Free it - Put it out there without walls around it or strings on it.
- Syndicate it - Let anyone take it and run with it.
- Monetize it - Put the monetization and tracking systems into the microchunk.
So it is a great move for eBay to have widgets. Having an army of eBay users use these flashy (pun intended) widgets everywhere can only help drive traffic to each auction - and ultimately growth of the eBay user base. It is likely that in the next iteration, if things go well, eBay is going to let users transact without needing to go to the eBay website. This will be a truly distributed auction system and it is likely to work well.
So are their negatives or drawbacks? One thing that looks like a mistake on eBay's part is that the widgets are too big to fit into a blog sidebar. Having widgets in the post is okay, but posts come and go. eBay needs to release a widget that fits into the vertical sidebar of a blog, so that it can occupy the site permanently. But this is probably going to be fixed soon, based on initial user feedback.
The new eBay widgets are a great move and likely to be just the beginning of their widget distributed strategy. However, looking beyond just widgets, eBay's odd mix of Web services and lack of a holistic user experience for them all is problematic.
The company appears to be going down a few paths at once, looking for killer services to add to its core auctions. However the lack of coherence in the interfaces and inconsistent metaphors are things that need addressing. While natural systems are known to almost magically self-organize and breed order out of chaos, Web systems are best when they are engineered and designed. It is possible that eBay could turn its services chaos into dollars, but it is likely to be much more effective if it unifies, cleans up and messages out its offerings - in a single consistent way.