The eBay Chronicles: Dreams of an eBay Mashup

I’ve been pondering the state of Internet commerce recently, and wondering why eBay has missed the chance to be the center of all commerce while Google has become our main shopping resource by default…without doing anything to deserve it. I’ve even come up with a solution: An eBay mashup that could be the mother of all shopping sites on Web 3.0. Tell me why I’m wrong, but give me a chance to spin my tale first.It all began when I bought a computer for my father on eBay last week.

I’ve been pondering the state of Internet commerce recently, and wondering why eBay has missed the chance to be the center of all commerce while Google has become our main shopping resource by default…without doing anything to deserve it.  I’ve even come up with a solution: An eBay mashup that could be the mother of all shopping sites on Web 3.0.  Tell me why I’m wrong, but give me a chance to spin my tale first.

It all began when I bought a computer for my father on eBay last week.

I know, I know.  I said I would never use eBay again a few months ago, but I couldn’t help myself.  I heard about the new eBay Wiki, and the new Skype calling features and just had to go look.  Once there I bought my Dad a Father’s Day gift: a computer.  Not your regular computer…an actual navigator’s computer in its original box and packaging—really, a circular slide rule—that he had used on B-17s flying out of Norwich in England during the last years of WWII.

As my parents get older, and jettison more and more things, it has become harder to buy anything for them.  I won points this year.  My dad was thrilled when it arrived, exactly as advertised, and even more rapidly than I had expected. This time I had a great eBay experience, and started to think maybe I was going to be an eBayer after all.

The whole Father’s Day gift idea started the way it does for most of us who spend a lot of time online these days: by doing a search on Google.  I threw in a couple of key words: B-17 and Navigator.  The results were just what you would expect: overwhelming, and generally useless.  One of the unspoken realities about life in the days of Google is that while the search engine might deliver millions of search results, finding the ones you want is still like pawing through the haystack to find that proverbial needle.  Unless you’ve mastered the art of query language terms, or are looking for something with a highly unique descriptive tag, Google’s mysterious algorithms sort results in weird, wonderful, and wacky ways.  This is fine if you have time to wander aimlessly through the web, but a problem if you have other things to do. And worse for the Internet shopper, Google provides no features to make shopping easier or better.

So I gave up until my wife reminded me that time was growing short and she wasn’t going to bail me out for Father’s Day this year (although she did buy the card for me to send.)  I started to seriously consider a model of a B-17 Flying Fortress or a copy of the PC game “B-17 Flying Fortress: The Might Eighth” (the main “Product Search Results” offered up by Google) when I just couldn’t keep stand scrolling through the listings any more.  Then my good friend, a military history buff, and a long time eBayer Jim Forbes suggested I check the auction company’s site. 

Bingo!  Lots of interesting products, including several like the “Navigator’s Computer” with “Buy It Now!” labels that I could get for my dad.  (If you’re a B-17 fan, check out this eBay store with a photo of the cockpit and lots of authentic items for sale.)  Success!

But then I started to think about how I actually found the product, and how difficult it was even in this day of broadband access and an infinite worldwide web because of the walled garden approach that eBay has adopted to shopping.  The problem is simple: eBay listings do not show up in a Google search. 

I’m not stupid, I realize that the eBay folks want me to come to their site to search for whatever I’m looking for, where it controls all the banner and search ads and can try and sell me lots of ancillary products and services.  I don’t even mind that.  The problem for eBay is that it has done a terrible job of convincing me that its site is the first place I should go whenever I want to buy anything, and so far, it has done precious little to justify it either.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that no one else has done it yet so the company can still grab this territory.

So here’s my solution.  If eBay really wants to provide me with a viable, and powerful service that will draw me back time and time again, why not extend its listings to include many more shopping products from around the web.  In fact, why doesn’t eBay become the shopping comparison site for the entire Internet?  Forget Amazon, eBay already has lots of unique second-hand, and new products offered by a vast array of sellers.  It has plenty of infrastructure to protect buyers and sellers.  It already has brand-name products for sale from a plethora of sources.  Why not add retail store listings for a given item too?  And while they’re at it, why not include classified ads too?  Either display Craigslist postings, or suck up those ads from the web too and categorize them, feeding them through the same query engine.

If eBay keeps its listings in a walled garden then it should provide a comparison shopping engine for every retail, and classified ad seller on the web from within that walled garden.  Think of it like this: Adding a product comparison engine—no, the best price and product comparison engine—would make it the destination of choice whenever anyone wanted to buy anything, new, used or whatever.

Now, from where I sit, that would be a shopping site to be reckoned with instead of today’s fragmented, balkanized, and inefficient collection of ten million sites.  The eBay toolbar would become the commercial gateway to finding anything you want to buy anywhere on the web, anytime.  No more aimless wandering through Google, or tracking through multiple shopping comparison sites, or heading to Craigslist and trying to parse its listings.  One place.  New and used products.  Retail, But It Now, Classified Ads, or Auction: Take your pick. Available from your eBay toolbar inside any web browser—or even, if the company was really smart, as an Ajax plug-in to Google or Yahoo or any other site that supported that technology.

What’s wrong with this idea?  I admit I have no idea how to monetize this, or whether the eBay Power Sellers would shriek, or if retail sites would want to be listed in the commercial retail listings next to every Tom, Dick and Harriet selling out of their garage, or if Craigslist would let eBay queries reach into its database and display results.  Maybe the company doesn’t need permission; it could just be the world’s best shopping mashup.

All I know is that it would be a boon for every consumer like me.  And come to think of it, isn’t that the way to build a successful Internet business: Give the great unwashed hordes something they can’t get anywhere else, gathering, aggregating and repurposing all sorts of Internet data with cool tools even if there’s no clear money stream from every last piece of it? 

I’m sure there’s a big flaw in this somewhere and I trust that the collective intelligence of millions of Internet readers will quickly set me straight.  Come on eBayer’s tell me what I’ve missed.  Until then I’ll keep dreaming of the great eBay mashup I’ve started to design.

Anyone for building Web 3.0 with me?

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