How Ebay uses big data to make you buy more

How Ebay uses big data to make you buy more

Summary: Hugh Williams, Ebay vice-president of experience, search, and platforms, talks about how the online auction company uses customer behaviour patterns gleaned from big data to increase the likelihood of making a sale.

TOPICS: E-Commerce, Big Data

Online auction website Ebay uses big data for a number of functions, such as gauging the site's performance and for fraud detection. But one of the more interesting ways the company makes use of the plethora of data it collects is by using the information to make users buy more goods on the site.

With 180 million active buyers and sellers on Ebay, the website generates a lot of data. At any given point in time, there can be around 350 million items listed for sale, with over 250 million queries made per day through Ebay's auction search engine.

Speaking at the Big Data Summit in Sydney, Hugh Williams, Ebay's vice-president of experience, search, and platforms, said that the company typically holds 10 petabytes of raw data in its Hadoop clusters and Teradata installations.

Obviously, Ebay can't force users to buy every item that they come across, but the company takes advantage of big data to improve the chances of making a sale.

One of the ways it does this is through optimising its search engine and the results that come up by making tweaks based on customer behaviour patterns deciphered through the collected data.

"If you wound back the clock just a couple of years and used our search engine at Ebay, you might have found it was too literal," Williams said. "There were things you could express to the search engine that it would literally find, but didn't really understand the deep meaning of user intent that you had.”

"We've been on a journey to really make our search engine more intuitive."

For example, through using big data, Ebay found users looking to buy a Pilzlampe, a type of collectible German mushroom lamp, were more likely to make a purchase when they entered ”pilz lampe” in the Ebay search engine, as it would yield more results.

By simply putting a space in a word in the search engine, Ebay could improve the chances of a sale through the website.

With this kind of information, Ebay alters and rewrites the search queries made by users through its search engine, adding synonyms and alternative terms so that it can bring up more relevant results.

Not only that, Ebay uses big data to make predictions on whether a listed item will sell and how much it will sell for, which affects how high an item ranks on the auction site's search engine.

All of this can increase the likelihood of a user making a purchase.

But implementing factors to shape the way search queries are answered can be risky, according to Williams.

"It takes several months of engineering to implement a factor, and it's very high risk because we don't know at the time whether its actually going to be useful for our customers in helping them find items," he said. Which is why Ebay usually runs a number tests on the website for a sample group of users first to gauge the response.

Another challenge is taking the context of search queries into account. One example is if a user looks up “Geelong Cats”, Ebay's search engine may just take 'Cat' as the keyword and run it across the Pets category — not particularly useful when the user is searching for the sports team's merchandise.

"There are very subtle problems that can occur at our scale, so we need the likes of data scientists to investigate these issues," Williams said.

Topics: E-Commerce, Big Data

Spandas Lui

About Spandas Lui

Spandas forayed into tech journalism in 2009 as a fresh university graduate spurring her passion for all things tech. Based in Australia, Spandas covers enterprise and business IT.

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  • wildcards

    The end of support for wildcards in searches is one change that it making it harder for experienced users to find what they are looking for. Apparently eBay wants only the simple-minded user that they can more easily manipulate.
  • Make money by ebay is good idea

    Making money with Ebay is entirely possible, but one has to be realistic. As with any other business, to be successful requires real work. "Getting Rich Quick" is a fantasy. You can, however, get rich slowly, and have a lot of fun along the way. There are many sellers who join Ebay, and think that all they have to do is post a few items for sale and boom...they make money. It just doesn't work that way for most.

    First, you have to have a product or products to sell. This means you need a source. Some people buy products wholesale and re-sell at a profit. Some people sell things from around their house that they no longer want. Some people go to yard sales, auctions, and estate sales and find things to re-sell. Some people watch for 75% off sales at their local retail stores and buy things to re-sell. Some people sell things that they make. (I make lighthouses and costumes.) I also do all of the other things listed above. Knowing what will sell or be "in demand" requires research. I call all of this "footwork." There is lots of footwork involved here.