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Online Auctions: User Experience Insights from eBay


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  • 1. CHIMERA WORKING PAPER NUMBER: 2006-10 Online auctions: User experience insights Online Auctions: User Experience Insights from eBay Chimera Working Paper Number: 2006-10, April Haywood, A.J. © 2006, University of Essex Page 1 of 198
  • 2. Chimera The work reported in this paper is part of the scientific programme of Chimera, the Institute for Socio-technical Innovation and Research at the University of Essex. Chimera is a post-disciplinary institute employing social scientists, computer scientists, engineers, anthropologists, psychologists, HCI practitioners and interface designers specialising in ‘socio- technical’ research and consulting. It was set up in April 2002 at Adastral Park, Suffolk as a research institute of the University of Essex. Chimera carries out research which combines the social and technological sciences to: • generate insights into personal and social use of information and communication technologies, • ground technological innovation in an understanding of people, • provide analysis to support evidence-based 'information society' strategies and policies in the public and commercial domain. We achieve this through a balanced programme of basic and applied research projects, consultancy and publication. For more information see Contacting Chimera Chimera Tel: +44 (01473) 632238 Institute of Socio-Technical Innovation and Fax: +44 (01473) 614936 Research E-mail: Ross Building (PP1, ROS-IP) Web: Adastral Park, Martlesham Heath, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP5 3RE UK Citing This Paper Readers wishing to cite this paper are asked to use the following form of words: Haywood, A.J. (2006) ‘Online Auctions: User Experience Insights from eBay’, Chimera Working Paper 2006-10, Colchester: University of Essex. © 2006, University of Essex Page 2 of 198
  • 3. For an on-line version of this working paper and others in the series go to: © 2006, University of Essex. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Director, Chimera. Acknowledgements I would like to thank the ESRC for their financial support for this report’s fieldwork and writing up. This was funded through RES-000-23-0433 ‘Virtually second-hand: Internet auction sites as spaces of knowledge performance’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 3 of 198
  • 4. Table of Contents 1 Making e-commerce sites matter to people ......................................................................... 6 2 ‘Stickiness’ ............................................................................................................................ 8 2.1 The Web’s Holy Grail ..............................................................................................................10 2.1.1 The stickiest site on the web ................................................................................................... 10 2.1.2 Good ‘Sticky’ Design................................................................................................................. 12 2.1.3 Sticky Content .......................................................................................................................... 13 2.1.4 Ensure the ‘Basics’ ................................................................................................................... 15 2.1.5 Sticky Marketing....................................................................................................................... 15 2.2 ‘eBayer transformations’ & moments of truth ...........................................................................17 2.3 User Experience .....................................................................................................................20 3 Trust, Mistrust & Risk.......................................................................................................... 22 3.1 Trust Defined.........................................................................................................................22 3.1.1 Trust Thresholds ...................................................................................................................... 23 3.1.2 The Fragility of Trust................................................................................................................ 24 3.2 Trust & Risk...........................................................................................................................26 3.2.1 Information & Risk ................................................................................................................... 27 3.3 Establishing Trust in e-Commerce ...........................................................................................30 3.3.1 Trust in Sellers and Intermediaries .......................................................................................... 30 3.3.2 Moving people towards the ‘active green’................................................................................ 36 3.3.3 Pre-interactional filters ............................................................................................................. 37 3.4 Harnessing the Power of Reputations ......................................................................................44 3.5 eBay as a Trust -based System ...............................................................................................45 3.6 ‘Most People are honest, but….’: Omidyar’s solution.................................................................46 3.6.1 Feedback: The logistics............................................................................................................ 49 3.6.2 Feedback: The reality............................................................................................................... 54 4 Interface properties (& beyond) ......................................................................................... 83 4.1 Branding ...............................................................................................................................84 4.2 eBay & usability .....................................................................................................................93 4.2.1 Towards that ‘difficult first transaction’ & beyond ................................................................... 95 4.2.2 Supporting ‘browsing’ & ‘searching’ ......................................................................................... 99 4.2.3 Example user scenario: accessing eBay’s Safety Centre.......................................................... 99 4.2.4 Filtering Help information & contacting eBay .......................................................................... 99 4.2.5 Keeping eBay ‘abloat’ ............................................................................................................... 99 4.2.6 ‘Closing the Loop’ via Customer Feedback............................................................................... 99 © 2006, University of Essex Page 4 of 198
  • 5. 4.3 eBay & affective experience....................................................................................................99 4.3.1 eBay as a ‘fun’ experience ....................................................................................................... 99 References ................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 1................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 2................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 3................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 4................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 5................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 6................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 7................................................................................................................................. 99 Appendix 8................................................................................................................................. 99 © 2006, University of Essex Page 5 of 198
  • 6. 1 Making e-commerce sites matter to people The overall success of an e-commerce website, and how it matters to people, will be affected by a number of factors including, for example, “its aesthetic appeal, the nature of its content, how it compares to competitor sites, and how easy the target audience find it to use” (System Concepts, n.d.). Trust is also a vital ingredient for the successful adoption of such sites, as transactions are conducted through the ‘veil’ of the computer medium and this places a unique set of constraints on the buyer-seller relationship, unlike those associated with face-to-face transactions (Nah and Davis, 2002). Free from many of the spatial and temporal boundaries associated with traditional commerce, impersonal, disembedded e-Commerce transactions (Giddens, 1990) afford very different experiences from their offline equivalents (Straub and Gaddy, 2003). For example, with no buildings or staff to evaluate, and no physical items to inspect, consumer decisions rest purely on the pictures and the descriptions provided. Moreover, once a decision to transact has been made, transactions are neither instantaneous nor continuous, which can prove problematic as Straub and Gaddy (2003) state – e.g. critical elements of the sales interaction may be ambiguous, such as postage costs, processes, and avenues for recourse, and there is no post-payment assurance that one’s order will actually be fulfilled. With transactions “stretched over space and time” (Zhou and Liu, 2005: 6) in this way, consumer decisions tend to increase in complexity and the need for trust increases (Giddens, 1990) - trust acts as a mental mechanism that helps reduce complexity, allowing for decision making under uncertainty (Luhman, 1979, cited in Egger, 2003). This report considers a special kind of e-commerce offering – eBay - viewed by some as the ‘killer application’ of the Internet (Urban, 2005). Unlike more traditional e-commerce stores, eBay does not deliver goods - it operates purely as an intermediary through which sellers can post auctions and buyers can bid (Cabral and Hortaçsu, 2005). As such, eBay seemingly presents a perfect e-commerce solution which operates globally, enabling millions of buyers to meet millions of sellers. There is no denying, however, that eBay offers an informationally lean environment in comparison to traditional marketplaces, and this leads to transaction risks such as identity uncertainty (of online trading partners) and product quality uncertainty (Ba and Pavlou, 2002) - transaction partners may never meet face-to-face, and the eBay system dictates that payment typically precedes receipt or even inspection of the goods. As regards the second of these © 2006, University of Essex Page 6 of 198
  • 7. points, most purchasers have only seen a picture (or two) as part of the item description and, as traditional auction house Sotheby’s vice president C. Hugh Hildesley has observed, “no illustration will give you a precise sense of what an object is really like” (Boyd, 2002). In relation to this issue, which Kollmann (1998; 2001) calls a ‘Quality of Business Deal’ problem, a ‘reality gap’ may be encountered should the item not live up to the expectations created by the description provided. In summary, devoid of the physical presence of an auctioneer orally controlling the auction, overseeing things and ensuring fairness1, people bid for items they (typically) cannot examine or touch, from sellers they may never meet, using a computer system (eBay) that “handles bids, runs a timer, and declares auction winners” (Boyd, 2002). Such interactions, almost by definition, require the essential ingredient of trust. Specifically, as highlighted by Chong et al. (2003), interacting partners need to both trust each other and perceive the mediating system, eBay, as trustworthy – e.g. that you will receive your item, that it will be as described, that your financial details will be kept safe, that prices will be established in a legitimate way, that eBay will help out as an agent of redress if needed. In the e-commerce literature, often trust has been reduced to the problem of security, with the argument that if security issues are resolved, people will happily transact online. However, when the concept of e- commerce trust is investigated in a little more detail, by breaking it down into its constituent parts, other factors (e.g. privacy, ease-of-use, information credibility) are revealed to be just as important to consumers as security (Egger, 2003). Indeed, as argued by Egger and Abrazhevich (2001), “the assessment of security typically happens very late in the trustworthiness evaluation process – namely, just before placing the order”. Trust is a pre-requisite for e-commerce sites to matter to people. If they are not trusted, they will not be used. Indeed, as discussed in our study, non-eBayers were largely reported to not use eBay, either because they didn’t have a computer (or Internet access) or because they had fears concerning trust and security. Once eBay has been trusted enough to start using it and continue using it, it matters to people in a number of different ways. This notion of ‘mattering’ draws strongly on Miller’s (1998) perspective on ‘mattering’ - that issues, things or processes often regarded as ‘trivial’ are often those “‘most effective in social reproduction” (Miller, 1998a: 12). 1 As Boyd states ‘across cultures and times, auctions have taken place under the supervision of an auctioneer whose voice commands attention and maintains order… [on eBay, however,] instead of a single person orally controlling the auction, there is only a website. Instead of a bidder being able to observe competing bidders in the crowd, there are only usernames’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 7 of 198
  • 8. Certain issues should ultimately ‘matter’ to academics because they ‘matter’ to their research participants. And while some academics may see certain aspects of eBay as ‘trivial’, which may explain the comparative neglect of ‘softer’ aspects in favour testing economic and auction theory (see Wood, 2004 for a literature review of online auction research), eBay clearly ‘matters’ to people using the site in a number of different ways for a number of different reasons. In its investigation of why eBay matters, this report will look at aspects of the eBay user experience in detail, centring largely on experiences closely mediated through the computer medium, rather than more ‘off-eBay’ experiences related to, for example, fulfilment (of the transaction). To do this, in addition to engaging a number of public texts - such as observations from, media releases, and literature drawn from across e-commerce, human computer interaction, psychology, and marketing - this document will also draw on user data from our research, derived through focus groups, interviews, questionnaires and experience diaries. Specifically, the report will outline experiences related to trust, and eBay’s Feedback Forum, in particular, before the discussion turns to considerations of usability and eBay as an affective experience. 2 ‘Stickiness’ Since the early days of e-commerce, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mantra of ‘build a business web presence and they will come’ is no longer regarded as an effective strategy to reach potential customers. Specifically, the exponential growth of the Internet and the diversity of its user population has led to the increasing realisation that, as an inadequate incentive for users, a simple static (in both content and design) web presence will not encourage repeat visits and extended stays. Due to its very nature, the Internet “allows users to quickly skim through websites, easily bypassing sites that fail to engage them, to meet their needs, or to capture their attention” and sites that appear dull, broken or confusing will diminish the user’s experience, encouraging an early departure (Chen and Sockel, 2004: 203). “All over the Net, sites are gathering virtual dust. Some of them cost a fortune; others were created on a budget of zero. Some of them are smart; others are just plain dumb. They’re all different, but they all have one thing in common – they aren’t sticky enough” (Marshall, 2003). © 2006, University of Essex Page 8 of 198
  • 9. With ‘virtual dust’ threatening to shower down on the heads of every new e-commerce site that sets up shop, as Marshall’s (2003) quote highlights, grabbing a sizable share of the e-commerce market is the ultimate goal. Just as ‘real-world’ stores require repeat business, online equivalents also need customers to return again and again. Essentially, as succinctly put by Marshall (2003), “if a site isn’t sticky2, it isn’t working”, both in monetary terms and for the good of any community associated with the site. Indeed, while repeat business is beneficial financially, if a site is based on the notion of community, then repeat visits have to potential to bolster the ‘community feel’ of the site, a comment that is particularly salient to eBay. Essentially, the Internet buzzword, ‘sticky’, is shorthand for a site that holds the attention of visitors, resulting in longer and more frequent visits. As offered by NetRatings’ analyst Peggy O'Neill (cited in Festa, 1999), “Stickiness is not a measure of efficiency - it's a measure of how engaging you are”. Stickiness can also be related to Gell’s notion of aesthetic traps, as applied to the Internet by Miller (2000). Miller examined 60 commercial and 60 personal websites created by Trinidadians. He characterised these websites as attempts to create aesthetic traps, where the term aesthetic refers not to some notion of beauty, but to the visual characteristics of websites that attempt to draw others into social and/ or commercial exchange, and show the social efficacy of the website’s creators (Miller, 2000). Aesthetics are used to align the creator of the web pages with their audience – web pages are used to signal whether the website producer thinks their audience is ‘appropriate’. Websites are regarded as social agents with social efficacy to entrap the will of others – to catch surfers through a ‘sticky’ visual effect, the creation of enthusiasm or wider involvement. The concept of ‘stickiness’ is not only evidence that, in some ways, a website such as eBay matters to people, but the notion of stickiness, in itself, matters to eBay as a company. To stay abreast of its competition, the eBay site requires more than a professional appearance; it needs to attract and engage users (Chen and Sockel, 2004), as “stickiness = relationships = loyalty = revenues” (Sanchez, n.d.). Indeed, driven by economic incentives, eBay needs to ensure that a maximum number of pages are viewed, as long browsing sessions and repeat trips are more 2 ‘Stickiness’ is usually measured in terms of how much time the average viewer spends on the site in a month (Nemeth-Johannes, n.d.). © 2006, University of Essex Page 9 of 198
  • 10. likely to result in transactions, which ultimately results in revenue for eBay through listing and selling fees. 2.1 The Web’s Holy Grail As offered by Marshall (2003), “ultimately stickiness is more of an art than a science”. However, despite there being no magic formula that says “add one of these, two of those and a bit of this to make your site sticky” - stickiness isn’t complicated, it just requires paying attention to what your customers want even if they don’t know they want it (Marshall, 2003). Identifying what ‘stickiness’ entails, in terms of defining site-elements designed to encourage visitors to linger longer, is the Holy Grail of Web design (Pappas, 1999). As such, the desire to harness stickiness has fostered a plethora of Google-able articles, which inform that, for example, you must jazz up your site with personalised features, games, news, and ‘fun stuff’. The assumption is that a multitude of ‘add-ons’ will encourage people to initially visit and become engaged once there. However, while adding dynamic and interactive features would seem judicious, in reality, as Marshall (2003) suggests, add-ons that seem pointless and without significance to the site’s intention, may act like oil rather than glue discouraging visitors to stay or even re-visit. 2.1.1 The stickiest site on the web I think it’s successful because it’s a 24/7 online boot sale, with a massive market place, and everybody likes buying and selling. We all do, don’t we? We’re all consumers, and it’s an easy way to get things and get rid of things that you might not otherwise be able to. (Adrienne, Focus Group, M3) At the moment, with eBay being a household name, ‘virtual dust’ is most definitely not a problem. Indeed, one can argue that, while eBay continues to offer the promise of a global marketplace for (largely) consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer transactions, with an acceptable degree of ‘user cost’, the success of eBay will continue, ensuring eBay’s sustained status as “one of the major successes of the Internet” (BBC News, 2003). “Internet ratings firm Nielsen NetRatings said eBay's UK site had increased its audience by more than 160% since March 2002 to more than six million people. Over the same period Amazon's UK site saw its audience rise 40% to 5.2 million” (BBC News, 2003) – see figure 1, below. © 2006, University of Essex Page 10 of 198
  • 11. Figure 1: eBay overtakes Amazon in UK, in terms of growth and absolute numbers (BBC News, 2003). With its familiar logo designed by Tom Walters in mid-1997 (Braun, et al., 2002), eBay is now officially the stickiest site on the web (Wendland, 2000), with reports suggesting that eBay has actually raised the bar for stickiness. Indeed, in terms of pages viewed and time per person on the site, eBay is seen to dominate, even over the likes of “eBay dominates in terms of pages viewed and time per person on the site… With more than 1.3 billion page views in March and an average of an hour and a half spent on the site, eBay’s stickiness raises the bar for the industry” (ACNielsen, 2001). The following are a number of facts related to eBay’s stickiness, which eBay promote on their site (, n.d., a). •'s audience reached 11.3 million in September 2005 (Nielsen/Netratings, September 2005). • Every third Internet user visits at least once a month (Nielsen/Netratings, April 2005). •'s reach was 43% in September 2005 (Nielsen/Netratings, September 2005, where reach is the percentage of all active internet users within that month visiting • eBay visitors average one hour 54 minutes on the site and view 280 pages per month (Nielsen/Netratings July 2005) • People in the UK - as is true with Germany - spend more time on eBay than any other website (Nielsen/Netratings, April 2005). © 2006, University of Essex Page 11 of 198
  • 12. • accounts for 10% of all the time UK users spend on the Internet (Nielsen/Netratings, April 2005). • People in the UK spend more money on eBay than they spend on going to the movies (Screen International). In terms of more objective measures of its success and expertise, in addition to giving a brief history of its background3 and development, the eBay site does host links to financial information such as its earnings, stock information, annual reports, press releases (e.g. concerning recent acquisitions of Skype and, details on how to invest in eBay inc. (through ShareBuilder), and information on related events. While such information can be accessed through, access takes the user to (, n.d., a). Obviously, from a usability perspective, this could be disorientating, given that any subsequent ‘eBay-activity’ will operate on rather than – e.g. if users still believe they are consulting eBay’s UK site, the presentation of US-based items following a search, may be confusing. 2.1.2 Good ‘Sticky’ Design Sticky elements can relate to either the design of the site, its actual content, and community aspects. Here, marketing is also important, in terms of attracting new visitors and encouraging return visits. In terms of the site’s actual design, usability4 is particularly important - only when users feel as comfortable as possible, not perplexed at all by their participation, will stickiness ensue. As Nielsen (2001a) reports, e-commerce depends on usability - websites go under because their expenses exceed their revenues, and usability significantly impacts the second of these parameters5. If ease-of-use is not offered and users are prevented from quickly finding the information they want, with the minimum of cognitive overhead, any promise of stickiness is lost – potential customers may give up, thus blighting the chances of a return visit. Nielsen (2001a) suggests that, on average, most websites only comply with (roughly) a third of documented usability 3 Although the story of Omidyar developing eBay to help his partner trade vintage Pez dispensers has been exposed as mere marketing myth, this tale is presented in the company overview provided: “Pierre's fiancée (now wife) was an avid Pez™ (sweet dispenser) collector. She was having trouble finding people to trade with, and Pierre thought eBay might be the answer to her problems” (, n.d., a). 4 For readers unfamiliar with the concept, a breakdown of usability criteria is presented in Appendix 1. 5 Nielsen (2001a) adds, that, “with better usability, the average site could increase its current sales by 79% (calculated as the 44% of potential sales relative to the 56% of cases in which users currently succeed)”. © 2006, University of Essex Page 12 of 198
  • 13. guidelines, which has a negative affect on their business and, relatedly, the chance of their survival in the competitive e-commerce arena. Supporting this, Nielsen’s (2001a) study of Web shoppers highlighted that, of the 496 attempts to perform various tasks on 20 large and small e- commerce sites, only 56% of such attempts were successful. Supporting usability’s position, Nah and Davis (2002: 98) comment that, as Web shoppers become more sophisticated in their knowledge of online purchasing alternatives, “they have become less patient with Web sites that are difficult to understand and use”. Nah and Davis (2002) go on to report that, to a large extent, the Web is required to be a place of ‘instant gratification’. Thus, “a sprawling site that’s stuffed to the gills with rubbish” (Marshall, 2003), will encourage neither repeat visits or the promise of a ‘flow experience’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 19916; Rettie, 2001), where the user feels so totally absorbed in their activity that time doesn’t signify, resulting in their Web-session being prolonged. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that all stickiness is due to flow, one can declare that design elements that encourage flow should also increase stickiness (Rettie, 2001). Usability was not an overt research thread in our current research, and no empirical user testing was conducted. However, it is worth noting that, as indexed by our respondents, eBay is generally regarded as having good basic usability to the point where this is largely ‘taken-for- granted’ by users. The topic of eBay’s usability will be tackled in section ‘4.2 eBay & Usability’. 2.1.3 Sticky Content The look and feel of a website is only part of the ‘stickiness story’, however. Although vital, usability must not triumph over content, as both are essential components of the equation. Sticky content makes the site worth visiting and usability permits this content to be experienced with minimal costs to the user, in terms of, for example: frustration, time, and aborted goals. In order to be sticky, the intention should be towards a site that stands out in some way (Marshall, 2003), with fresh, regularly updated content. As the fore-runner in its field, eBay is obviously not a ‘me-too’ site, which replicates countless others. eBay maintains a monopolistic position in the online auction field. With a global seller 6 Csikszentmihalyi (1991) defined the concept of flow as the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement. © 2006, University of Essex Page 13 of 198
  • 14. constituent drawn to it for this very reason, eBay affords a constant turnover of new, fresh stock, based on possible auction durations of up to a maximum ten days and, coupled with the sheer diversity of the items offered, this attract buyers: “What started as a place to trade collectables and hard-to-find items has developed into a marketplace where you can find practically anything. From everyday items such as mobile phones, DVDs or DIY to clothing, collectables and even cars. Trading on eBay is easy and fun and you'll never know what you might find” (, n.d., b). As acknowledged in the above quote from eBay themselves, although customers were initially drawn to eBay as a place to trade collectables and hard-to-find items, today eBay cannot be regarded as a specialist auction site. Herein lays its attraction as almost a ‘one-stop-shop’; a comparison site for both new and second-hand items, where all tastes can be satisfied. Indeed, people can buy anything from a car to ‘bizarre’ auctions such as a mouldy yoghurt or pile of laundry dust (which were both observed in 2004), all with the promise of bargain prices: R: And what do you all like most about the site, what matters most about the site - in terms of design or features or anything? RC: That you can just put in some bizarre thing that you’re thinking of and there it is. M: I think it’s a really good site because you can use it at different levels, and you’ve got some people selling cars on it and things, and you’ve got other people who just go on, you know, to look around and compare prices with the shops. There seems to be a real mix of people. Not too specialised. MB: It’s just like a lot cheaper, and I like the site - nice design. (Focus Group, M4) Moreover, there is always the possibility that somewhere on eBay, at some time, that ‘elusive item’ will appear; that ‘perfect item’. Such items could turn up at any time: “The thing about the eBay is you don’t know what’s going to turn up - I tend not to buy the regular televisions or radios, or whatever, they tend to be the more unusual bits and pieces” (Oscar, radio collector). Accordingly, while potential bidders perceive the listing of ‘that perfect item’ to not be too remote, they may keep returning to the site, to check. If a visitor’s quest is unfulfilled, then eBay’s homepage can attempt to capture a few more minutes of the user’s time through the provision of, for example, seasonal competitions such as this year’s ‘Great British Stocking Filler’ (, 2005), which ultimately aims to encourage members to visit and participate, and new members to register and sign up for a PayPal account. © 2006, University of Essex Page 14 of 198
  • 15. Essentially, eBay aims towards stickiness not just through its listings, but through additional features such as its community boards and the relatively new addition of ‘eBay Groups’, which allows members who share common interests to create and grow their own community, through participation in discussions, newsletters, polls, calendars, and photo albums. 2.1.4 Ensure the ‘Basics’ As well as meaningful content, the ‘basics’ are also essential for stickiness, especially for casual browsers who may be visiting the site for the first time. Indeed, for the casual browser, “meaningful page titles and search engine-friendly descriptions” will be of particular importance (Marshall, 2003). For all visitors, even experienced visitors who may have established their own shortcuts and ‘work-arounds’, technical problems such as ‘duff’ links and ‘404 errors’, will not create a welcoming experience (Marshall, 2003) and, accordingly, they may discourage repeat visits. 2.1.5 Sticky Marketing The final part of the stickiness equation is marketing. Here, search engine marketing can provide a means to bring in new business, especially if web searchers are looking for specific products through a search engine rather than specific companies. Similarly, ‘e-mail newsletters’ or e-mails detailing special offers/discounts may tempt registered users back for a repeat visit (, n.d.). In order to increase website traffic, announce new products and services, and promote current offering, etc., eBay uses an e-mail marketing strategy. By engaging in this, however, eBay is in competition with other vendor’s e-mail messages, and with the full range of e-mail messages received, in general. For example, eBay is regularly seen to send e-mails to registered members detailing special listing days where listing fees are discounted if certain conditions are met – e.g. 1p listing days for items starting below 99p or 5p listing days. To support these promotional messages, which may suffer due to ‘inbox competition’, details are also advertised on eBay’s homepage in the run up to the event, as figure 2 exemplifies, and users can access information of such promotions via ‘My eBay’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 15 of 198
  • 16. Figure 2: Homepage Advert for a forthcoming 5p listing day (, 2006). Additionally, eBay occasionally sends out coupons (which have an expiry date) to its members, which buyers can use to pay for items that meet the coupon's restrictions, where the seller accepts PayPal as a payment method. To redeem the coupon buyers enter the coupon redemption code when paying (see figure 3), and PayPal then validates the coupon and displays the buyer’s discount. Coupons are automatically converted to regular currency at the time of redemption, so sellers are not aware that a coupon was used to fund the buyer’s payment. Figure 3: PayPal entry field for coupon and voucher codes. To encourage eBay sellers to establish a marketing strategy whilst still operating within eBay’s boundaries, eBay has introduced an e-mail marketing facility, which can be used by sellers with an eBay shop, to promote themselves and foster relationships with members from the wider eBay community. In particular, to encourage new bidders and repeat business (for the seller in question), the scheme allows buyers to sign up to receive e-mails from sellers they have added to their Favourite Sellers list. Sellers can then create up to 5 e-mail mailing lists that target © 2006, University of Essex Page 16 of 198
  • 17. different subscribers based on their interests and purchase history - buyers choose which mailing lists they belong to when they sign up. 2.2 ‘eBayer transformations’ & moments of truth With more and more people learning about eBay through, for example, word-of-mouth and/or media reports, the ‘eBay-oblivious’ population dwindles. However, the transformation path of the once ‘eBay-oblivious’ doesn’t always end with these individuals being happy, successful eBayers. Indeed, after hearing about eBay, some may people may still choose to ignore the site completely (‘eBay-refuseniks’). Others, although curious, may still resist accessing the site (‘eBay- curious’). Others still, may choose to visit eBay to see for themselves what all the fuss is about; perhaps going on to make purchases or sell, perhaps just making the occasional visit to peruse the items on sale and/or the additional facilities eBay hosts. Indeed, once ‘leaving’ the ‘eBay- oblivious’ community, never to return, a number of transformation possibilities are offered. Although our discussion won’t dwell on this topic, it is appropriate to make the distinctions depicted in figure 4, before continuing our discussion. Figure 4: Nominal categorisation of consumers according to eBay awareness and experience. The figure above serves to crudely categorise people (without attempting to model proportions) according to their ‘eBay awareness and experience’, using the distinctions defined below: • eBay-oblivious Those who aren’t aware of eBay’s existence • eBay-refuseniks © 2006, University of Essex Page 17 of 198
  • 18. Those who, even though aware of eBay, refuse to visit the site • eBay-curious Those who have heard about eBay, and are tempted to go there, but haven’t as yet • eBay lurkers (non-registered occasional visitors) Those whose curiosity has led them to visit eBay. These people may remain unregistered lurkers, despite many repeated visits, until forced to register in order to bid for an item that tempts them • Active eBayers Those who continue to buy and/or sell on eBay • Dormant eBayers These are registered members who’s participation has waned for what ever reason, or whose active participation has never started (i.e. no transactions have been made since registering). As such, this status can be temporary. • Ex-eBayers Those whose eBay participation has come to an end with their de-registration – either de-registered by choice or been forced to de-register, by eBay, due to a policy violation. For various reasons such individuals may either intend to: • remain unregistered users (as ‘refuseniks’ or perhaps ‘lurkers’); or • may re-register at a later date Continuing our discussion in accordance with the categories defined, it is possible to argue that, once the eBay-curious access eBay’s homepage as the ‘front door’, such visitors are not guaranteed to head straight towards the ‘active green’ (i.e. ‘Active eBayers’). Indeed, they may remain an unregistered ‘eBay-lurker’ until, for example, they discover an item that particularly tempts them and registration is necessitated. “The first transaction is the most difficult” (Brian Burke, eBay, 2003). While those who visit eBay can be regarded to have transformed from ‘eBay-curious’ to being an ‘eBay-lurker’ or ‘newly registered member’, performing one’s first transaction on eBay (as a buyer or seller) can be difficult, as eBay themselves acknowledge. Once over this initial hurdle, however, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s all plain sailing from then on. With this in mind, the current authors would argue that getting people to leap from being ‘eBay-curious’ or even a © 2006, University of Essex Page 18 of 198
  • 19. frequent ‘lurker’, to being a once, twice, and then a regular, active eBay customer, depends on their ongoing customer experience. “Customer experience includes everything that comprises a user’s experience on a Web site. This can include how they feel about the site and the impressions they get from it, whether they can successfully use the site or become frustrated, and the extent to which they encounter technical problems or confusing areas of the site” (TechSmith, 2005: 1). Borrowing words from Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which talks about ‘customer retention’, eBay must continue to work as much at keeping existing customers, as they do to encourage ‘fresh blood’ through the doors and into making that ‘difficult first transaction’ (Seybold, 2001). For existing eBayers, therefore, it is necessary to ensure that they continue to perceive their eBay-experience as valuable (Weinstein and Johnson, 1999 cited in Minocha et al. 2003), as any deviations from this perception may have a serious impact on their level of participation. “Any time a customer comes into contact with any aspect of your business, however remote, that customer has an opportunity to form an impression” (Carlzon, 1986) . As Jan Carlzon (1986) defines, every critical point of customer interaction is a ‘moment of truth’. Moments of truth (hereafter MoTs) are highly influential in terms of whether eBay continues to matter or not, as negative MoTs will operate to mar the customer experience. It is with respect to MoTs that eBay differs from traditional forms of e-commerce, where the term relates to critical interactions between a single business and individual customers, as Carlzon’s quote suggests. On eBay, the potential for ‘moments of truth’ is extremely wide ranging, relating not just to one’s ongoing experiences with eBay itself, but also one’s interactions with buyers and sellers - mediated through eBay as the initial gateway and, potentially, experience of payment mechanisms such as Paypal. Additionally, due to their vital role in fulfilment, postal mechanisms will also play their part. “eBay is offering an experience. The people who go to eBay to bid keep coming back to check on their auctions. It's entertainment” (NetRatings analyst Peggy O'Neill (Festa, 1999). In sum, overall user experiences (including MoTs) will have a dramatic impact on which eBayers stay (and their participation levels) and which ones defect or become dormant or disenchanted. © 2006, University of Essex Page 19 of 198
  • 20. Thus, even once that ‘initial hurdle’ has been overcome, negative experiences may prevent a customer (buyer or seller) from returning, acting almost like a solvent to dissolve eBay’s stickiness. 2.3 User Experience Despite potential for negative MoTs, on the whole it is arguable that whatever eBay does, it does it well. The number of worldwide registered users (181 million registered users, March 2005,, n.d., a) and the abounding reports to its stickiness, outlined earlier, would seem to attest this claim. It would appear, as mentioned previously, that eBay is now a ‘household name’, used far and wide in order to purchase a diversity of items, as the following quote from Neil, suggests: And all my colleagues I work with, they as well go and eBay - the things they buy are pretty diverse - one bought a motorbike the other week - you know, beautiful motorbike, and another one is selling china, some special Denby, or something like that, I think it’s called. Which he’s selling on eBay. Everybody I’ve met so far at the university’s on eBay. Everybody. (Neil, stamp and cover collector) To investigate its success, this report will look at the eBay user experience in a little more detail, going beyond notions of branding, trust, and usability, and holistically teasing out some support for the assumption that eBay serves its audience well – “99.97 percent of eBay users … have a fun, positive and rewarding trading experience” (Whitman, 1999, cited in Boyd, 2002). Where applicable, evidence to the contrary will also be offered. Although not an exhaustive account of the eBay user experience, the focus will largely relate to aspects of this experience that rely on eBay as an intermediary. “User experience simply refers to the way a product behaves and is used in the real world. A positive user experience is one in which the goals of both the user and the organization that created the product are met. "Usability" is one attribute of a successful user experience, but usability alone does not make an experience positive for the user. Historically, product design and development has considered the mere existence of a particular feature as evidence that a user goal is fulfilled by the product -- with no attention paid to the experience the user has with the product while using the feature”. Garrett, author of ‘The Elements of User Experience (cited in Rhodes, 2003) © 2006, University of Essex Page 20 of 198
  • 21. Further to the effects of usability, previously discussed, “research has shown that Internet shoppers use caution when purchasing and paying for products purchased over the Internet” (Bland et al., 2005: 6). Essentially, the ability to attract online customers and get them to actually complete their transactions is influenced, not only by usability, but also the perception of risk (Bland et al., 2005). For the consumer it is imperative that the perceived benefits of using an e-commerce medium, in our instance eBay, significantly outweighs potential risks and inconveniences. This is a sine qua non for transactions to occur: “… and it is risky. I mean, you are always … you’re relying on the honesty of the seller. Erm, so you’ve always got to judge whether you take the risk or not, with any particular item. Erm, whether you think it’s going to be worthwhile” (Martin, radio collector). Accordingly, when considering any e-commerce medium, not just eBay, there is a need to think beyond attributes of a negative user experience such as difficulty of use - as problems with trustworthiness, as well as privacy and customer service issues, constitute real psychological barriers to adoption (Egger, 2000). The need for people to protect themselves, their assets, and those they love, is as old as humankind itself. Through their experiences individuals learn to protect themselves during their day-to-day encounters. In terms of user perceptions of trustworthiness, trust building is essentially a learning process, built day-to-day through various ‘evidence-collecting channels’ (Yunjie et al., 2004). The antecedents of trust may be fostered through personal experience or, as offered by social learning theory (SLT), vicariously through experience in a social context - through a process of modelling (the process of observing others responding to an environment and experiencing the consequences). Essentially, such modelling includes both vicarious learning (i.e. observing others) and symbolic learning (e.g. learning through printed media). As Yunjie et al. (2004: 10) posit, from a SLT perspective “the trust building process is essentially an expectancy formation process”, whereby the observation of seeing others perform threatening activities without adverse consequences can antecede the observer’s expectation when faced with the same stimulus (Bandura, 1977). Notions of reputation incorporate another’s behavioral consequence. Thus, word-of-mouth constitutes a vehicle of social learning, as both word-of- mouth advocacy and negative word-of-mouth can profoundly impact on trust decisions associated with the adoption of a new technology. Naturally, media perceptions also provide vicarious experience, acting to build or discourage perceptions of trust, in a process akin to trust transference (Doney and Cannon, 1997 cited in Egger, 2003), which will be discussed further, later this report. © 2006, University of Essex Page 21 of 198
  • 22. 3 Trust, Mistrust & Risk Overall, it can be said that trust is essential in any relationship, not just those played out online. But what do we mean by the term trust? How is trust formed, maintained and lost in electronically-mediated buyer-seller relationships? And just how essential is the trustworthiness of a vendor, anyway? Essentially, trust is not a characteristic of the e-commerce site in question. Rather, trust is a judgment made by the user, based on “general experience learned from being a consumer and from the perception of the particular merchant” (Sisson, 2000). Numerous factors undoubtedly influence one’s perception of trust, with some having a greater impact on the perceived trustworthiness of the vendor, than others. Here it is appropriate to make the necessary distinction between trust and trustworthiness, as the two should not be discussed synonymously: trust is an attribute of the subject (the trustor), whereas trustworthiness is an attribute of the object (the trustee) (Egger, 2005). 3.1 Trust Defined Successful e-commerce, whether on eBay or Amazon or elsewhere online, requires trust. Before highlighting our findings with respect to eBay and elements of trust, we begin our look at trustworthiness with a definition. An understanding of trust as it relates to online transactions can be developed based on the work completed in offline trust research. As Möllering et al. (2004, cited in Watson, 2004) note, the term ‘trust’ dates back to the 13th century, having its roots in expressions that symbolise faithfulness and loyalty. Despite this pedigree, however, due to the dynamic nature of ‘relationships’, the variety of contexts in which trust is a vital component, and the plethora of academic vantage points interested in this concept, finding a catch-all definition of trust proves difficult. In psychology, one of the most frequently used definitions comes from Rotter (1980: 1), an early researcher of trust, who conceptualises trust as a belief, expectancy, or feeling … “that the word, promise, oral or written statement of another individual or group can be relied upon”. This definition is still heavily employed. Koller’s (1988: 266) definition, which expands on this expectancy view of trust, appears most appropriate for our current purpose. “A person's expectation that an interaction partner is able and willing to behave promotively towards the person, even when the interaction partner is free to choose among © 2006, University of Essex Page 22 of 198
  • 23. alternative behaviours that could lead to negative consequences for the person. The degree of trust can be said to be higher the stronger the individual holds this expectation”. 3.1.1 Trust Thresholds Trust thus acts as a mechanism which enables action in the face of risk (Boyd, 2002). However, rather than simply talking in terms of ‘trustworthy’ or ‘not trustworthy’, of specific interest in Koller’s definition is the acknowledgment of different degrees or strengths of trust. Tan and Thoen’s (2000) generic model of trust for e-commerce accords with this notion. Indeed, central to their model is the notion that for consumers (the trustors) to engage in a commercial transaction, their level of trust must exceed a personal threshold, which is influenced by factors such as personality (e.g. risk seeking vs. risk-averse) and by the potential profit or utility gained from entering into the transaction. Tan and Thoen (2000) also distinguish between Party Trust and Control Trust, arguing that if the trustor’s subjective trust feelings about the other party (i.e. Party trust) do not exceed one's threshold, then Party Trust needs to be complemented by Control Trust, which relates to more objective and independent control mechanisms: i.e. Party Trust + Control Trust = Transaction Trust (Tan and Thoen, 2000). Basically, arguing for the duality of trust and control, if trading partners do not directly trust each other, Tan and Thoen (2000: 1) comment that they can opt to rely on “the procedures and protocols that monitor and control the successful performance of a transaction” instead. Specifically, it is not the control mechanism per se that helps someone reach their threshold. Rather, it is the trust in the control (Control Trust), which supplements one’s Party Trust. This concept of Control Trust somewhat mirrors Chong et al. (2003) notion of ‘intermediary trust’ – see section 3.3.1 (Trust in Sellers and Intermediaries) for an elaboration of this concept. The distinction between Party Trust and Control Trust (or intermediary trust) has notable relevance to instances where trading partners do not know each other before trading takes place. As such, it is pertinent to the operation of eBay, which requires the establishment of trust between strangers who may never meet and who may never engage in a future transaction. In such circumstances, on eBay, control mechanisms such as its feedback forum (see section 3.6 of this report) or payment mechanisms such as PayPal may serve to bolster any faltering trust in one’s transaction partner. Trust in such control mechanisms, however, will differ as a function of © 2006, University of Essex Page 23 of 198
  • 24. previous experience and trust propensity, which are clearly subjective. Accordingly, as our degree of trust in these mechanisms will not be stable, over time, it does follow that transaction trust will consistently meet or exceed one’s threshold, when similar situations are considered. 3.1.2 The Fragility of Trust “Trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback” (Calman, 2002, cited in Eiser and White, 2005: 12) Following from the above implication that similar situations will not encourage similar trust levels, numerous scholars have commented on the fragility of trust, noting that trust is easier to destroy than create. Arguing that various cognitive factors contribute to this asymmetry, Slovic (1993, cited in Eiser and White, 2005) coined the term ‘trust asymmetry’ in acknowledgement of the fragility of trust - trust is “typically created rather slowly, but it can be destroyed in an instant by a single mishap or mistake” (Eiser and White, 2005: 12). With regards eBay, as anecdotal evidence and findings from our fieldwork suggest, if trust levels are raised to a level where eBay is attempted, a negative experience can discourage this person from making another attempt, especially for ‘high risk’ items: R: Yes, I mean, with you using the name of the business as a username, I suppose the reputation that you have and get through eBay is important to you. OTA: […] I think the key issue with eBay as far as I’m concerned is [the] security of knowing that the thing you’re buying is right. R: Yeah. OTA: And with some things that’s much easier than with others isn’t it, and radios are probably one of the worst things. R: Yes. OTA: Because there’s so much that can be wrong with them, which you can’t even see in a photograph, […] I’ve only ever bought one thing off eBay. R: Yeah. OTA: Which was a crystal set, and when I got it there were bits missing off it. (John, radio collector) At the heart of Slovic’s account is that negative events have more impact on trust judgments than positive events. Specifically, based on work that evaluated the impact of hypothetical news events on people's trust judgments, Slovic found that negative (‘trust-destroying’) events tend to © 2006, University of Essex Page 24 of 198
  • 25. be more visible and noticeable than positive (‘trust-building’) events, and they also tend to carry more weight in judgment than trust-building events of a comparable magnitude. As if to reinforce asymmetries between trust and distrust, the tendency is also towards bad (‘trust-destroying’) news being perceived as more credible than sources of good news (Eiser and White, 2005). Bad news stories tend to hit the media, a finding which is significant with respect to eBay, given their tendency to attract periods of bad press (e.g. reports concerning instances of fraud). Eiser and White (2005) have shown, however, that Slovic’s notion of trust asymmetry isn’t ubiquitous. In their exploration of ‘marginal trust’ – ie. how trust is built or lost as a result of new information – Eiser and White went beyond Slovic’s ‘negativity bias’ account of trust, adding that additional psychological mechanisms must be at work, as a “one strike and you’re out heuristic” (Eiser and White, 2005: 14) is not always adopted. Our qualitative data supports Eiser and White’s (2005) argument, revealing that, rather than ‘leaving on horseback’, trust can be ‘ferried by a slower beast’. Indeed, a gradual decline in trust can be observed based on an accumulation of negative ‘moments of truth’ - from direct experience or second-hand accounts (e.g. media reports or word-of-mouth) - which operate to weaken the confidence of eBayers. This decline in confidence was reported by Selena, in one of our focus group sessions, who reported a notable decline in her eBay purchasing based on the perception that, increasingly, eBay hosts auctions from less reliable sellers “who are just out to try and rip people off”: S: But I don’t buy much. And it seems to be there are a lot more unreliable people there now, who will try and rip you off and whatever, and I’m probably less into buying now than I used to be. I’m not as confident as a buyer now. R: You think the nature of the thing has changed a bit? S: Yeah. I think a lot more people have signed up who are just out to try and rip people off, probably. R: Than the earlier…? S: Yeah, at the beginning, everybody seemed sort of much more reliable, and that sort of thing. It’s gone down hill a little bit. (Focus Group, E3) Eiser and White (2005) also highlight insights from Signal Detection Theory, suggesting that people are sensitive to the exact outcomes of decisions when adjusting their trust levels - i.e. related to the desirability and undesirability of different outcomes, the potential cost of a trust- related decision is important. In terms of this notion, as our study found, people’s evaluation of the severity of an outcome may change over time, based an accumulation of observed outcomes. © 2006, University of Essex Page 25 of 198
  • 26. For example, although one of our respondents ‘started small’ and was only prepared to suffer relatively insignificant user costs; over time, what they were prepared to risk had increased: Because when I first started, I bought a few knitting patterns and things really, something for a quid thinking: ‘if it turns up and it’s rubbish, then it’s only a pound’. Whereas when you’ve got into the routine and you’ve had a few nice things, like I bought a scooter for my daughter. And I forget how much - nine or ten pounds. And the Lego was £15. So gradually, what I’m prepared to risk, has gone up - because I’ve had some nice things back. I wouldn’t be as worried now as when I first started - I thought I was mad then, it was just going to disappear, and my cheque was going to disappear, nothing would come. But it hasn’t happened to me yet. (Focus Group, E3) 3.2 Trust & Risk “The Net may consume trust, rather than produce it” (Uslaner, 2000: 8). Obviously, there is a close connection between trust and risk and, arguably, in situations where risk doesn’t exist the need for trust between the two parties is removed. Essentially, then, trust is a vital factor in risky situations where people are vulnerable to the actions of others. Indeed, Deutsch (1960, cited in Egger, 2003) characterises the need for trust arising under the following contextual parameters: • There is an unambiguous course of action in the future; • The outcome depends on the behaviour of another party; • The strength of the harmful event is greater that the beneficial event. Traditional markets rely heavily on the formation of trust, which is built by “repeated interaction and personal relationships” (Cabral and Hortaçsu, 2005: 1). Markets mediated by the Internet, however, tend to be more anonymous and, accordingly, some would argue over whether the same level of trust can actually be established in these markets. eBay, however, does afford the opportunity for a less ‘anonymous’ situation, especially where repeat transactions occur between the same buyers and sellers. Here, once any initial concerns are quashed by initial transactions, a relationship can be established, as Gerard, one of our stamp and cover collectors, reveals: I think what you do is if you’re buying from a new vendor, you try it and you keep your fingers crossed, but once you know they’re okay you can go back. As I said, I haven’t had any problems with vendors, and I think that if you did you only go there once. Whereas you can quite rapidly build up a © 2006, University of Essex Page 26 of 198
  • 27. relationship with vendors that you buy off regularly. (Gerard, stamp and cover collector) However, even though repeated interactions may foster belief that one’s trading partner will execute their part of the deal, the key to a ‘true trust relationship’ might be something that an online forum, like eBay, cannot guarantee the mediation of. The ‘special ingredient’ may still depend on certain specifics of the transaction. In particular, although repeat transactions may bring an increase in confidence, the feeling of ‘rapport’ may still be lacking: I suppose it’s like everything else, with some people you hit it off, and with other people you don’t, do you? And um, you know perhaps someone I dealt with eight or nine times, and there’s no kind of rapport between us, and perhaps somebody, I’ve dealt with only perhaps once or twice, the third time I’ll buy a cover off them, they’ll e-mail me and say: ‘I put it in the post last night’. And, you know, I’ll e-mail them back and say: ‘I put a cheque in the post this morning’, type of thing. And we trusted each other, so to speak. (Gordon, stamp and cover collector) 3.2.1 Information & Risk e-Commerce by its very nature, involves risks, some of which can be explained by looking at the information available to each party in the transaction. To clarify what this means, Tan and Thoen’s (2000) define the following three situations (italics are the authors’ own emphasis): 1. The situation where information harmony exists, and all parties know everything that is relevant for a transaction; 2. The situation of information ignorance where none of the parties have information relevant for (a part of) a transaction. 3. A situation defined by information asymmetry, where one party has information that the other party does not have. It is this latter situation of information asymmetry that affords opportunistic behaviour, as sellers can exploit the uncertainty afforded by the virtual medium and use information asymmetry (in terms of the item for sale or even their own identity) to their own advantage, at their transaction partner’s expense. With information asymmetry in mind, Tan and Thoen (2000) further define a distinction between: © 2006, University of Essex Page 27 of 198
  • 28. 1. Cases where the information problem arises before the parties agreed to transact, ex ante (the hidden information problem), and; 2. Hidden action - cases where the problem arises after the transaction has been agreed, ex post (the hidden action problem). Unobservability, which is a major cause for the occurrence of information asymmetries, obviously plays a greater role in e-commerce than it does with more traditional forms of offline commerce. Product and buyer/seller quality cannot be observed with certainty, and the level of hidden information is very difficult to determine. On eBay, however, the seller does benefit from the advantage of holding the goods until they receive payment, or they “can always offer the good for sale again if the original high bidder does not follow through” (Eaton, 2002: 2). On eBay, buying tends to involve the most uncertainty and risk, with information asymmetry constituting a major pitfall for buyers. Although not always, transactions that go awry on eBay tend to arise from instances of ‘information asymmetry’ where there’s a ‘hidden information problem’ – e.g. where the seller knows the ‘true condition’ of an offering and they have successfully managed to ‘hide’ this from potential bidders through strategies such as vague descriptions and/or blurry photographs (or the total omission of an image). For example, sellers may claim ignorance as to the working condition of an item so that, armed with imperfect knowledge, buyers submit a higher bid. One participant, Peter, a radio collector, describes this ‘constructed unknowingness’ in relation to radios, which often involves sellers claiming that they cannot test the item, when in fact the item has been tested and it doesn’t work: And to be totally honest about the description. I think, you know, if there’s something wrong with it, tell the person that there’s something wrong with it. Um. Because we’ve all seen this: ‘I haven’t got the batteries to put in it,’ and you basically know, well that doesn’t work, does it? (Peter, radio collector) For Arthur, another one of our radio collectors, buying on eBay is akin to purchasing at a boot sale where can’t see the item you’re buying. As such, it’s “extremely easy to be robbed” (Arthur, radio collector, interview) by sellers who, purely motivated by a high profit, only ever tell buyers ‘half the truth’. Based on this belief, clear criteria have to be met in order for Arthur to purchase vintage radios from eBay sellers: […] particularly for the buyer, it really is full of pitfalls - I can’t emphasise this strongly enough, I’ve told many people - would you buy anything, would you pay money to someone you don’t know, © 2006, University of Essex Page 28 of 198
  • 29. you’ve never seen, and would you buy an object with your money that you’ve never seen and never held and never looked at. If you do that, and pay a lot of money out, then you’re a bigger fool than I am. In my opinion, it’s very, very tricky to buy anything successfully, because most often, in my experience, the things that people tell you about their product that they’re selling on there, is only half the truth. There’s always a reason why they’re selling it. […] there are a lot of rogues, an awful lot of rogues on eBay, and you’ve got to be very, very careful. I’ve learnt to spot the signs. […] when I look for a vintage radio, what I need to see are several clean pictures, and I need to know the model and whether it’s complete, whether all the parts are there, I need to see inside of the set from the photograph. I usually e-mail and ask them questions, and if they don’t give me satisfactory answers, I don’t buy. (Arthur, radio collector, interview) As the above quote reveals, hiding the ‘true’ nature of the item extends beyond the item description itself. On eBay, sellers are afforded to chance to provide a more complete description, in response to requests (for additional information) from interested parties. As Arthur’s following comment goes on to suggest, unsatisfactory replies and non-replies can alert suspicion that the seller is hoping to prey on less-knowing bidders who may “plunge in blindly, with some kind of faith in human nature that is often misplaced” (Arthur, radio collector), in order to achieve a price beyond the item’s true market value: There was a radio on some time ago, which, by the look of the very blurred photograph, was an early Pye radio, one with the sunburst grille on the front. A very collectable radio, and there was also a photograph of one end of the radio, and the back view of the radio with a pole in place, showing the inside. So I e-mailed the gentleman who was selling it and asked him why he hadn’t shown a picture of the control panel which is on the other side, than what he photographed, seemed a reasonable question to me, I never got an answer, which tells me that first of all the controls were missing or the knobs were missing - something was missing, and he didn’t want that to show. But somebody bought that radio for £75. And the chances are they bought a dud. Because if he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with it, and there was obviously something wrong, you know, you wouldn’t buy it. (Arthur, radio collector) It is worthy of note that the trading of unique and collectable items on eBay is, in itself, a major source of uncertainty. For one, with unique items it is not possible for buyers to supplement their understanding by gleaning some knowledge of the item, based on the reputation of the original product (Eaton, 2002). For some items on eBay a limited description, perhaps without a photograph, is acceptable - “A roof rack is a roof rack. You don’t need a top level picture” (Focus © 2006, University of Essex Page 29 of 198
  • 30. Group, M4). For more collectable items, the information supplied is key. However, many elements of information important to the bidding decision (whether to bid and how much to bid), may be based purely on the seller’s subjective description. For example, with respect to audio equipment, elements that may be critical to the purchase decision might be the audio quality and the aesthetic and/or maintained appearance, which can be highly subjective, and ‘ratings’ may differ. Alternatively, the seller’s description may have been constructed just to get ‘eyeballs’. Item ‘spin’ is all important to appeal to certain markets on eBay, but may not reflect the ‘reality’ of the item under auction: I mean people do… Coming back to this pottery, you get the same item come up, people have called it different… some people will say it’s a porringer and someone will say it’s for hot chocolate, and or ‘very rare’ - all things that people do just to make sure you actually look at that item, because if you’ve just got ‘plate,’ it’s not a very bid word, and people just carry on going. People come up with all manner of things to just make you stop, and just go into the site to see what it is. (Focus group, 2M) 3.3 Establishing Trust in e-Commerce As a wealth of authors have noted (e.g. Egger, 2003), for e-commerce environments trust really is the key to successful transactions. Indeed, in such situations, even high usability is no substitute for an overall feeling of trustworthiness - perceptions of trust have the strongest affect on consumer purchase decisions. “Although better usability will generally improve [online] sites and their potential for success, usability alone will not result in a highly thriving online presence. After all, no reasonable person will spend money at an untrustworthy online store no matter how usable and pretty the site may be” (Lanford and Hübscher, 2004: 315). 3.3.1 Trust in Sellers and Intermediaries With respect to e-commerce, Chong et al. (2003) hypothesise that trust consist of two distinct facets, ‘seller trust’ and ‘intermediary trust’, as below. • Seller trust – a belief or expectation that the word or promise by the seller can be relied upon and the seller will not take advantage of the consumer’s vulnerability. © 2006, University of Essex Page 30 of 198
  • 31. • Intermediary trust – a buyer’s belief that the intermediary would protect them, provide a secure and stable environment, and ensure problem-free transactions (akin to Tan and Thoen’ s ‘control trust’, previously highlighted in section 3.1.1) Defining these two facets is particularly pertinent to eBay, as eBay represents a trading platform that intermediates, bringing sellers and buyers together and facilitating trade between them. With mediation being conducted through a virtual plane, face-to-face contact between buyers and sellers is typically zero – “sellers are not met, and little or nothing is known about their characteristics, or even their location beyond its city” (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001: 2). Moreover, payment normally is made before goods are received or can even be inspected, and repeat transactions (between particular buyers or sellers) are not guaranteed – Resnick and Zeckhauser’s (2001) study reported, over a five month period, that 89% of all seller-buyer pairs conducted just one transaction, and 98.9% conducted no more than four7. On eBay, although the buyer and seller may not have traded before, due to the potential for a reciprocal relationship between intermediary trust and seller trust, buyers may feel ‘safe’ dealing with a particular seller (or vice versa) (Chong et al., 2003). Indeed, as reported by Doney and Cannon (1997 cited in Chong et al., 2003), even if buyers have no or little knowledge of sellers, if ‘intermediary trust’ has been established and maintained (i.e. trust in eBay) this may have a direct impact on ‘seller trust’ through a process of ‘affect transfer’. Here, Tan and Thoen’s (2000) notion of ‘control trust’, cited previously (see section 3.1.1), has relevance, as intermediaries such as eBay provide informal and formal ‘control mechanisms’ which monitor and control transactions (both buyers’ and sellers’ behaviour), in order to help promote proper behaviour and punish opportunistic behaviour. As a slight revision to these two facets defined by Chong, et al. (2003), the authors would like to emphasise that ‘seller trust’ must also be extended to accommodate ‘buyer trust’ as, with platforms such as eBay, it is also vital that sellers have trust in those bidding on their auctions. 7 “In the vast majority of cases, multiple transactions between a seller and buyer occurred within a few days of each other (sellers often offer reduced shipping costs to buyers who buy several items that can be shipped together)” (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001: 9). © 2006, University of Essex Page 31 of 198
  • 32. Trust in eBay as an Intermediary When it comes to protecting sensitive personal information in particular, eBay’s trustworthiness rating, although relatively high, reveals that consumers are starting to demonstrate concern. According TRUSTe and Ponemon Institute’s second annual ‘Most Trusted Company for Privacy Award’, consumers increasingly consider privacy important: “More consumers call privacy important, respondents punish companies with publicized security breaches” (TRUSTe and Ponemon Institute, 2005) In the first of TRUSTe and Ponemon Institute’s surveys, which intended to collect opinions regarding online companies’ privacy practices and history, analysis revealed that eBay was believed to be the most trusted company, in terms of honouring their privacy commitments (see table 1, below). Table 1: Most Trusted Companies (TRUSTe and Ponemon Institute, 2004) • eBay • American Express • Procter & Gamble (all brands) • Amazon • Hewlett Packard • U.S. Postal Service • IBM • Earthlink • Citibank • Dell Conducting their survey again in 2005, following “a year when privacy issues made headlines and identity theft became the fastest growing crime in the United States”, participants were seen to register greater concern over privacy issues8, highlighting phishing attacks as a significant concern (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). With such concerns having an impact, the 2005 results 8 “The percentage of respondents calling the privacy of personal data “important” and “very important” grew by 1.4 percent each to a combined total of 84.8 percent” (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). © 2006, University of Essex Page 32 of 198
  • 33. reveal that consumer confidence in eBay is waning - eBay are now ranked in fifth place9 losing out to companies such as American Express and Amazon, who are ranked first and second, respectively. “Consumers showed increased understanding of privacy issues this year, citing resolution of personal privacy concerns, media reports about the company’s privacy practices and respect for consumers’ privacy significantly more often compared to last year, and the company’s overall reputation less often” (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). Table 2: Most Trusted Companies10, listed in rank order with last year’s top 20 rank in parentheses (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). Concerning perceptions of eBay’s privacy practice and history, a number of participants in our fieldwork reported concern about their own consumer privacy on eBay (see also section on privacy in our Chimera Working Paper 2006-09). Although eBay does have its own privacy policy, certain criticisms can be made. For example, Jason Catlett of Junkbusters Corp (Junkbusters, 2003) levels four main criticisms against eBay’s privacy policy: that your e-mail address may be harvested by spammers; that eBay will retain your personal information indefinitely, even if you ask them to delete it; the company will collect and maintain information about you which it will not be permit you to access; and the company 9 “Participants were not given company names to rate; they were asked for the companies they considered noteworthy for their trustworthiness” (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). 10 A tie for twentieth place resulted in 21 finalists rather than 20 (TRUSTe and Ponemon, 2005). © 2006, University of Essex Page 33 of 198
  • 34. may give your personal information to parties investigating you (such as law enforcement officers or government officials) or litigating against you without a court order and without telling you. eBay’s global nature is also said to compound these problems, as it is said eBay require users from outside the US to agree to processing of they personal data below the minimum statutory standards of many countries (Junkbusters, 2003). However, user concerns about privacy concerned how eBay disclose personal information in relation to the wider eBay community. eBay’s privacy policy states (eBay, n.d., c): (b) eBay Community. Your User ID is displayed throughout the Site and is therefore available to the public. All of your activities on the Site will be identifiable to your User ID. Other people can see your bids, items that you have purchased in the past, your feedback rating and associated comments, your postings on the Site, and so on. Therefore, if you associate your name with your User ID, the people you have revealed your name to will be able to personally identify your eBay activities. The issue of seeing what people had bought and sold through their feedback profile, was viewed as particularly contentious: L: The only funny thing that it’s fun to do sometimes is to go back and look at what some people have actually bought on eBay by going back through their feedback and clicking on the item, because that can be very amusing. T: I’m not sure that you should be allowed to do that really.[…] It just seems a bit strange that you can go through. (Focus group 2M) People believed they might be identifiable through what they had bought and sold, and for those members whose user IDs were known to friends and family, this could be embarrassing – especially if they were selling unwanted gifts: “I don’t like other people seeing what I’m buying and selling either, because I sell … a present someone’s given to me, but I don’t want them to see that I’m selling it on eBay, because that’s awful” (Focus group 3E). Looking through people’s feedback to view the items they had bought and sold was often seen as a source of amusement, especially with friends’ user IDs: “Actually it’s quite fun now as I can actually click on my friends’ identities and see what they bought at the car boot sale at the weekend, so it’s quite funny, isn’t it?” (Peter, radio collector). Although ‘snooping’ the profile of another eBayer could be considered to represent a harmless curiosity into people’s lives, it is possible that this ‘bid-stalking’ could turn into something more © 2006, University of Essex Page 34 of 198
  • 35. sinister. If someone wishes to find out another person’s home address on eBay, this can easily be done by completing a transaction with them. It is possible to have private feedback, but this creates a climate of mistrust – other people believe you have something to hide, perhaps very negative evaluations from others: “People have private feedback, as well - I don’t have them bidding on my items. Because I want to see what they’ve got, especially if they’ve got like two negatives. Even if they’ve got fifty positives, I want to know what those two negatives were for. You know, just to find out” (Focus group 2E). Essentially, there needs to be a careful balance between transparency of feedback and being able to find out ‘too much’ about a person. Looking at previous feedback can be ‘intrusive’. However, seeing what people have bought or sold can also be somewhat ‘instructive’. For example, it can help identify fraud in some instances – such as a case followed by the researchers, during the fieldwork, where a Czech glass car mascot was passed off as being by Lalique (the famous glass designer) and previously owned by the seller’s father in the 1930s during a period playing in the French rugby team. Upon closer inspection of the seller’s feedback, however, it was actually revealed to have been purchased on eBay two weeks previously, by the seller for £50. With the Lalique label and provenance it reached nearly £1000. Arguably, it is generally less useful to see what people have bought compared to what they have sold, and it is worth reflecting on whether links to items in people’s feedback profiles should disappear faster for what they have bought. Another participant also complained about others being able to see what you are currently bidding on, using eBay’s advanced search facilities – he described this as a “gross invasion of privacy” (Ernie, stamp and cover collector). Indeed, concerning this, the purpose and ultimate value of this facility is somewhat questionable. Another privacy concern, expressed by participants, relates to the eBay toolbar. eBay’s toolbar is ostensibly offered to users so they can differentiate spoof sites, which look like eBay, from the real thing. However, when users scan for spyware, the eBay toolbar was discovered to contain spyware elements: Yeah it’s billed as anti-spoofing and it won’t do anything. And I saw it - that was on the chatboard as well because I was looking for a... I had a question about selling so I went on it and I typed it in - and, erm, I saw that one of the people had an About Me page and it is all this anti-virus stuff and anti-spy ware. And I downloaded like window-washer or something, and it went through and it was just like this © 2006, University of Essex Page 35 of 198
  • 36. huge amount of like crap and it was all in ... it all had eBay on it - like five-hundred megabytes of stuff and I just thought right, that’s it, eBay toolbar’s gone. (Focus group 2E) Although the eBay toolbar page attempts to reassure that no spyware is contained within it (in terms of personally identifiable or trackable tags), the toolbar does gather data to attain an aggregate view of user activities. In terms of the promise of this feature, the authors argue that if eBay genuinely want to support identification of spoof websites and, thus, protect their users’ accounts, eBay needs to remove this tracking element from its toolbar – or, potentially, face user rejection. This issue was raised during an eBay University question and answer session, and eBay’s response was that they were trying to work with spyware detection software developers, so that the eBay toolbar would not be identified as spyware. However, user perceptions have already been formed about the eBay toolbar, and ‘masking’ the fact that it is gathering data is unlikely to be a successful strategy. 3.3.2 Moving people towards the ‘active green’ As aforementioned, problems with trustworthiness may constitute a real psychological barrier to eBay adoption. The rich focus of Egger’s (2003) Model of Trust in E-Commerce (hereafter MoTEC), developed from literature derived from Psychology, Marketing, Management and HCI; identifies trust-shaping factors (both online or offline) idiosyncratic to electronically-mediated buyer-vendor relationships. As a powerful model, applicable to the design and evaluation of electronic commerce systems, Egger considers factors beyond the user interface, bringing together elements such as usability, branding, reputation and customer relationship management. Specifically, with its focus on ‘initial trust’, the model has been iteratively revised to reflect the different phases a visitor goes through when exploring an e-commerce website for the first time. As such, the model presents four dimensions, which are divided into different components and sub-components: Pre-interactional Filters, Interface Properties, Informational Content, Relationship Management – for an in depth discussion see Egger (2003). While not an exhaustive account, our current exploration of eBay presents a flavour of our findings with respect to eBay as a trust-shaping intermediary and wider reflections of the eBay user experience. As Egger’s model largely applies to a traditional business-to-consumer e- commerce environment (which reflects only a section of eBay’s market), our current discussion © 2006, University of Essex Page 36 of 198
  • 37. will ‘dip into’ Egger’s framework, largely consulting his initial two dimensions, presenting related concepts and extending into aspects of the consumers’ affective experience, when using eBay as an intermediary. Egger’s (2003) first dimension, Pre-interactional Filters, discussed in the following section, concerns factors relating to user psychology and fore- or pre-purchase knowledge which combine to affect perceptions of trustworthiness even before an e-commerce system, such as eBay, is directly accessed. The second dimension, Interface Properties (discussed in section 4 Interface Properties & Beyond), which comprises usability and branding, relates to the more ‘superficial’ aspects of an e-commerce site and one's overall first impression of the site as a commercial system. As Egger indicates, given that an emotional response can precede a cognitive perception and response (Goleman, 1996), superficial does not mean aspects that are mostly cosmetic and easily changeable as “superficial though they may seem, interface design features are likely to have a non-negligible effect on a user’s subsequent decision to trust” (Egger, 2003) and, hence, their adoption of the website in question. 3.3.3 Pre-interactional filters Essentially, the decision for people to trust is binary, and a person’s level of trust can be seen to fluctuate during successive interactions with a website, as an increasing amount of information concerning the other party is processed (Fogg and Tseng, 1999, cited in Egger, 2003). Based on this view, one can assume that prior to interacting with a given website, initial trust values will be based on people’s predisposition to trust and their pre-knowledge and expectations with respect to the industry or company in question. As Egger (2003) comments, the latter can fostered due to the reputation of the company (i.e. the strength of a company's brand name), previous interactions (on- and/or off-line), or through or third party reports which signal the ‘transference’ of trust. Concerning one’s general propensity to trust another party (a person, group, or business), large individual differences in one’s readiness to trust relate to “a variety of philosophical and moral attitudes about the goodness of others”, personal experience(s), and also culture (Egger, 2003: 36). With regards to the design of an e-commerce site, if one acknowledges trust propensities, then even if trust-inducing features are introduced into an e-commerce system they may not be © 2006, University of Essex Page 37 of 198
  • 38. sufficient to convert a generally mistrusting individual into a trusting customer (Egger, 2003) or, in this case, a registered and active eBayer. In addition to one’s propensity to trust, with online forums such as eBay, one’s perception of, familiarity with, and access to ICT and Internet facilities will impact on one’s judgements concerning trustworthiness, quite possibly dictating whether or not people start using eBay in the first place. Additionally, one’s general attitude to e-commerce may play a major part. “48% of households in the UK can access the internet from home, compared with just 9% five years ago” (Ward, 2003). Access to the Internet is increasing, as the above quote from Ward (2003) reveals. However, even for those generally familiar and comfortable with the Internet and e-commerce, factors such a type and cost of Internet access (dial-up, broadband, etc.) and context of use (home and/or work), will come into play - serving to characterise one’s user experience. “…the majority of the population is able to get online in at least two of the four places web access is available - at home, at work, at school or in a local library. Only 4% of Britons lack somewhere close by that they can surf the net” (Oxford Internet Institute findings, cited in Ward, 2003). Ernie, one of our stamp collectors, supports the statement that unfamiliarity (of both computers and eBay) may foster distrust, highlighting that, without direct experience of eBay the concerns expressed by non-adopters may be exaggerated: “… Lack of familiarity/confidence with computers is usually the main reason. Some who have never used ebay express concerns (in my view exaggerated) about fraud, inability to examine material, and lack of privacy” (Ernie, stamp collector questionnaire). In our study, a number of the radio collectors commented on knowing other collectors who had never tried eBay, primarily as a result of not having access to a PC: “Yeah, I know a few members who have never gone in for it because they don’t really work a PC, you see” (Sid, radio collector). Thus, although we had originally hypothesised that ‘prejudice’ towards intermediaries such as eBay could be a contributory factor (towards non-adoption), reports from our participants mostly implicated limited levels of computer literacy: I don’t think there’s … I don’t know, I don’t know of any prejudices towards it. I mean there must be an awful lot of people that don’t use it, simply because, erm, they haven’t got a computer, they’re © 2006, University of Essex Page 38 of 198
  • 39. computer illiterate, erm, they find doing forms and uploading the pics difficult, and it’s all too much for them…And their stuff ends up at, you know, the friendly old swap meet auction… (Gregory, radio collector) This unfamiliarity with computers is then further compounded by the ‘fear of the unknown’ concerning the online auction process and the requirement to deal with strangers once in ‘cyberspace’. For those outside of the (eBay) system, who were often identified in the qualitative material as older people, the fact that eBay could work and they would actually get their goods, seemed unlikely. As highlighted in the following quote from our fieldwork, buyers, in particular, may be reluctant to send money off to a person they don’t know, even with the site’s reassurances and mechanisms: […] obviously to use eBay properly you’ve got to be computer literate I think […] Er, you’ve got to understand how to use a computer, you’ve got to understand how bidding works, er, you u know, this sort of proxy bidding, and sniping and sort of, planning a strategy, er, I think the sort of people, maybe the slightly older generation, they’re not switched in to using that sort of thing, er, and I think yeah there is that to it, also there is this sort of trust, I know there’s people, I mean I was talking to someone recently and I said, ‘I sent off a cheque for £30 to someone I don’t even know’ and they said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ (laughs). […] And I said, ‘Well they’ve got good feedback’ and all that, and they said, ‘Yeah, what would happen if it went wrong?’ and I went, ‘Yeah’, that comes back to what you said earlier with fraud, you know, so I think there’s some people that maybe don’t get involved in that. (Philip, radio collector) Based on hearsay from others, non-eBayers may even fear that merely registering on eBay, never mind transacting with a stranger, will lead to complications such as their e-mail inbox becoming full of SPAM: “ …I think I’d heard a lot about it and I was worried that if I started to use it I’d end up loads and loads of SPAM, because somebody had said that” (Focus Group, E2). Access to computer and Internet facilities, rather than uncertainty regarding them, per se, was also highlighted as a major factor, rather than notions of prejudice: I can’t think of anybody like that. I know a few people who don’t use it because they can’t use it. Um, they’ve got restrictions, say, at work - on Internet usage. And they don’t have their own PC at home, or at least not an Internet connected one. There are those still about. So obviously they don’t, but they are probably quite aware that if there was something they wanted, I could bid on it for them. (Oscar, radio collector) © 2006, University of Essex Page 39 of 198
  • 40. With respect to general attitudes to e-commerce, although experience is important, such attitudes may not necessarily be built from direct experience. Indeed, although it is reported that a third of the population tend to be "early adopters of almost anything" (Keen, 2000, cited in Egger, 2003: 37), “two-thirds will need good arguments and the benefit of others' experiences to feel confident enough to transact online” (Egger, 2001: 319). Risk-aversive individuals, in particular, may wait to read/hear the reports of early-adopters, before trying for themselves. In terms of eBay, although it is reportedly “the top brand name on the net” (BBC News, April 2005), not everyone will hold a rosy account of its reputation, as the following quote from Colin attests: “[on eBay] there is a reputation of ‘scams’; poor equipment sold by commercial antique dealers” (Colin, radio collector). The attitude of many a non-adopter may be based on media reflections, where sensationalist stories typically get reported. Thus, as Boyd (2002) reports “in spite of the existence of dangers at offline auctions, people seem more conscious of dangers at online auctions and all kinds of other online interactions”, as stories concerning electronic abuse often get blown out of proportion. [Evils] “exist online in proportions approximating those of the physical world. The online world represents a microcosm of the world around us, with its knowledge, its wonder, and its darker side” (Gelman and McCandlish, 1998, cited in Boyd, 2002). Instances of fraud on eBay, such as the UK teenage fraudster who conned eBay customers to the tune of £100,000 (Griffith, 2005) tend to attract wide media coverage. Due to trust asymmetry and the fragility of trust, discussed earlier, such ‘negative media reflections’ tend to have a larger impact on trust judgements than ‘positive media reflections’. As such, they are often held up as reasons not to use eBay by ‘eBay refuseniks’. In our study, negative media reports such as the investigation of eBay fraud by UK ITV1 television programme ‘Tonight with Trevor McDonald’, were often referred to, even by active eBay members. As reported by one of our focus group respondents, who mostly sold to supplement his student finances, negative media portrayals of eBay often operate to slow down trade on eBay, through, for example, existing members being a bit more weary, and the ‘eBay-curious’ and ‘lurkers’ being discouraged from taking the plunge: […] it’s been quite hard for the last month or so. And apparently that because eBay’s just slowed down. Erm, like, I’ve been talking to quite a few people, who I’ve sort of met through eBay - I’ve © 2006, University of Essex Page 40 of 198
  • 41. exchanged e-mails, sort of like, what’s going on? And everyone has noticed it’s a real slow down at the moment; non-one’s buying. Apparently some newspaper did a news article on eBay about how crap it was. How scammers are rife and suddenly no-one would buy anything [laughs]. (Focus Group, E2) Even opinions from ‘strangers’, either online (e.g. collecting websites, newsgroups, bulletin boards and mailing lists) or offline (e.g. collecting magazines, journals, newsletters), can have a significant affect on eBay adoption, particularly if authors are deemed trustworthy by virtue of their knowledge and perceived similarity to the reader (Eiser and White, 2005). Henry, one of our vintage radio enthusiasts, reports about an article in the October 2003 edition of Lighthouse, the magazine of the Eddystone user group. The piece, written by the magazine’s editor, constitutes a rant about eBay, advising Eddystone collectors not to use the site. Due to the Editor’s trustworthy status within the community, one can assume that this negative portrayal of eBay served to dissuade a few ‘eBay-curious’ Eddystone collectors from giving eBay a try. […] there was an article that appeared a few months ago in Lighthouse which is the magazine of the Eddystone user group […] er, basically it’s a rant by the editor of the magazine against eBay, er, I’ve actually got it in front of me he saying things like, er, ‘My attention has recently been drawn to some Eddystone models advertised on a website called somewhat curiously “eBay”, it’s a place where secondhand goods by the thousand are auctioned off worldwide, I wouldn’t waste my time with it. I would never buy an Eddystone or anything else for that matter without a close look. People auction sets when there’s a problem’, and he says at the bottom, ‘Please think twice before you pay a silly price for any old Eddystone, and remember that price and condition on web auction sites can be distorted by mischief makers and fiddlers’. Well, yes it can but so it can anywhere else, if you know, someone is trying to be dishonest, they’ll find ways of doing it everywhere. (Henry, radio collector) Trust transference can also relate to the site’s ‘web visibility’ (e.g. its presence or absence in directories and its ranking on search engines such as Google), due to the often misconceived perception that listed sites are leaders in their field and, therefore, reliable and trustworthy (Egger, 2003). With respect to eBay’s web visibility, the qualitative data from our study shows mixed results in relation to links from Google. Indeed, while Google has led two of our participants to start using eBay, when they searched for items through a general Google search, two other respondents were made more sceptical about eBay because of its links to Google. One respondent automatically felt that eBay was a site that was going to rip him off, as part of a © 2006, University of Essex Page 41 of 198
  • 42. general distrust of Internet shopping: “I’d been using the Internet since ’94, you know, quite regularly, and as you say search engines; and Amazon stuff, used to come up, and eBay as well, and I think the first reaction was: ‘I don’t want that thing, they’re going to rip me off, they’re going to take all my money away from me,’ and I don’t want to buy on the Internet, you know” (James, Focus group 3E). Andrew, in the same focus group, also felt the links from Google were spurious, and made a conscious decision to ignore eBay: I’d heard about it for years. I mean, I was surprised I didn’t realise in ’95. I can remember hearing about it years and years and years ago. In fact, when I used to look for things online, to purchase, I used to be annoyed by the fact that eBay came up on the search engines. I used to be annoyed I had to wade through all the eBay things, you know, it never occurred to me to go and look at what was on the eBay site - I just assumed it would be rubbish. That went on for a couple of years at least, and I really, I made a definite decision to actually ignore it, but never went into the site to see what was there. (Andrew, Focus Group 3E) Further to the impact of media reports and eBay’s web visibility, the trusted advice and experiences (both good and bad) of friends (word-of-mouth or word-of-mouse11), acting as a form of ‘viral marketing’, can have a significant affect on adoption. This phenomenon, referred to as trust transference, means that people are likely to trust another previously unknown or little known party, if a party one trusts recommends them (Doney and Cannon, 1997 cited in Egger, 2003). Reflecting this, in our study, four times as many people started using eBay after either personal recommendation by a friend, work colleague or fellow collector, or after seeing others use the website, than through media influences or advertising. PayPal use, in our study, was similarly been shown to be strongly influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations that it is trustworthy: I was very weary at first, but a colleague of mine, his wife is a resources manager for a huge American company, and er, I was sitting talking to him and he said: ‘we always use eBay.’ And he said: ‘I always use PayPal.’ And I asked him to explain it to me, this is before I started using it, and he said: ‘this is what PayPal is.’ And he went through it all and said: ‘my wife is cleverer than I am.’ He said, ‘being a resources manager for a huge American company,’ he said: ‘she would never use anything she’s not sure of.’ And he said she uses it all the time. Well, I said, ‘on that recommendation,’ and knowing his 11 In addition to word of mouth reports, e-mail is also good for viral marketing – the ‘word of mouse’ that results when people e-mail their friends about a site. As Thompson (2003), “word of mouse is important because on the Web you can reach so many more people beyond your circle of friends”. © 2006, University of Essex Page 42 of 198
  • 43. wife anyway, you know, she is very, very clever, I thought: ‘yep, I’ll start using PayPal. I must admit, I do think it’s the best way online to do it really. (Neil, stamp and cover collector) Of course, initially negative attitudes to eBay, fostered through word of mouth (or mouse) or offline or online reports, may not be enough to permanently blight the temptation of the eBay- curious – direct experience may triumph. Indeed, as Derek, one of our radiophiles reveals, direct experience of using eBay may override any initial concerns that eBay is a dodgy place that supplies ‘rubbish’ to the gullible: But again I’ve heard sort of comments about eBay when I’ve been at meetings, you know, most people seem to think that eBay is very dodgy. I did until I used it. They expect to be sold rubbish and ripped off, and it doesn’t seem to be the case. (Derek, radio collector) With eBay now a ‘household name’, it appears that more and more people are becoming ‘eBay- curious’, fuelled by the widely used turn of phrase, ‘eBay it’, and comments such as “oh, you should sell that on eBay”, as cited by Frederic, one of our stamp and cover collectors. The concluding part of Frederic’s quote indicates that, although he enjoys the wide scope of items for sale on eBay, the issue of authenticity still exists: […] it is very common, very common, for people to say: ‘oh, you should sell that on eBay.’ But that seems to be like a general phrase in life now. I forget who I was talking to, not stamp related - ‘oh, you should sell that on eBay.’ Or, you know, anything you want out of the ordinary, you can just find it on eBay. […] if you think about it, ten years ago, before eBay, where would you have got a signed football shirt? ... Very difficult to get hold of, and now you go on to eBay, there’s loads. Now I’m sure most of them are fake, anyway. But, the fact is, you can get them very easily, and, I suppose … the rarity of those must have changed, but I’m sure most of them are fake. (Frederic, stamp and cover collector) Other respondents in our study also cited the ‘marvels’ of eBay while, at the same time, referencing elements of its fragility as a market model. Ernie comments on the advantages of the site for him, as a stamp collector. However, despite regarding eBay as a “market miracle”, the sheer size of which has opened up the stamp market, keeping prices down and reducing transactions costs; he acknowledges the vital need to keep eBay honest, a consideration we discuss in the next section: © 2006, University of Essex Page 43 of 198
  • 44. I think ebay is a market miracle. From nothing to a truly international marketplace with millions of participants within such a short period of time is astounding. For stamp collecting it has opened up the stamp market, democratized it, brought prices down, and dramatically reduced transaction costs. The greatest impact must be on the dealer community which is facing smaller margins and drying-up of new material as more and more amateurs take to selling their own stamps on ebay. Competition is always a good thing but for both buyers and sellers to benefit there must be a sufficiently large market so that there is informed competitive bidding. In the early days the ebay stamp market was too small for me to risk selling high value specialized material. Now that risk is steadily diminishing. There are other forums on the internet, auction or otherwise, for selling stamps already but they lack ebays market size and have no business model which would allow them to offer serious competition to ebay. How to keep ebay "honest" is an interesting question. (Ernie, stamp collector questionnaire). 3.4 Harnessing the Power of Reputations Despite online auctions representing ‘risky landscapes’, devoid of many of the trust-inducing mechanisms typically associated with economic transactions (for a discussion see Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001), the shuttling of both new and second hand goods among remote Internet strangers, mediated via eBay, is now commonplace. On eBay, although the rate is as low as one percent of all transactions (Keser, 2003), fraudulent transactions are witnessed. However, overall, the rate of successful transactions remains remarkably high for – as Kollock (1999) describes – “a market [so] ripe with the possibility of large-scale fraud and deceit”12 that, in 2003, online auctions accounted for 89 percent of complaints to National Consumers League Internet Fraud Watch (2004). “Trust among strangers in Internet auction exchanges relies on a reputation system that is fundamentally different from those that human societies have evolved over thousands of years to create trust, particularly trust in economic transactions” (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001: 2). When people lack perfect information about another’s intentions, they often evaluate intentions from other available cues, such as their reputation. However, although electronic markets are particularly vulnerable to opportunistic behaviour, they are also particularly suited to harness the © 2006, University of Essex Page 44 of 198
  • 45. power of reputations, as Miller et al. (2002) comment. Acknowledging this, a number of reputation management systems have been introduced into the e-commerce arena, to accumulate and disseminate feedback about past trading behaviours, so that the wider user community can base their initial filtering decisions on the information presented. 3.5 eBay as a Trust -based System “eBay is a microcosm for the economy as a whole - it illustrates both customer power and the profits created by trust” (Urban, 2005). As a trading platform, where trading partners typically do not know each other before trading takes place, eBay represents the microcosm of a trust-based economy as Urban (2005) suggests. eBay was founded on Pierre Omidyar’s core belief, derived through his experience, that ‘people are basically good’ - an ethos that is reflected in eBay’s Community Values to this day - see figure 5. Moreover, as if transporting the Golden Rule or ‘ethic of reciprocity’ to cyberspace, eBay was established on the principle that one should “treat other people on the site the way they themselves wanted to be treated” (Cohen, 2002: 26). Even when confronted with disputes, the founding ethos extended to giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, as the Founder’s Letter reveals: “remember that you are usually dealing with individuals, just like yourself. Subject to making mistakes. Well-meaning but wrong on occasion. That's just human” (, n.d., e). Figure 5: eBay Community Values as promoted by eBay themselves (, n.d., d). 12 © 2006, University of Essex Page 45 of 198
  • 46. 3.6 ‘Most People are honest, but….’: Omidyar’s solution “[Omidyar] believed that people were basically good. You know, the whole idea of sending money off into the netherworld and expecting someone’s then going to send you goods, to a lot of people - maybe the cynical people like myself - said ‘well that can’t work’” (Jim ‘Griff’ Griffith, The Money Programme, eBay: Money for Old Rope, 08/02/2005).. In the early days of eBay, or AuctionWeb as it was then known, Omidyar’s idealistic prescription was mostly met, and the community was relatively strong and trustworthy. However, cracks in this harmonious arrangement were seen, and Omidyar received e-mails directly, asking him to arbitrate in buyer/seller disagreements or misunderstandings. Omidyar then proposed the Feedback Forum (in February 1996) as a means to foster a climate of trust without eBay needing to become more ‘hands on’ in terms of investigating users and posting evaluations (of transactions), themselves. Thus, as Calkins (2001) argues, the feedback forum serves eBay’s own “economic and regulatory needs of encouraging a large user base, while maintaining distance from transactions”. eBay are able to stay out of the transaction as much as possible, preferring to be characterised as a passive provider or mere venue, where transaction partners can meet and complete their transactions. Concerning this libertarian solution, Pierre posted the following message on eBay (eBay, n.d., e): “Most people are honest…But some people are dishonest. Or deceptive. This is true here, in the newsgroups, in the classifieds, and right next door. It's a fact of life. But here, those people can't hide. We'll drive them away. Protect others from them. This grand hope depends on your active participation. Become a registered user. Use our feedback forum. Give praise where it is due; make complaints where appropriate… Deal with others the way you would have them deal with you. Remember that you are usually dealing with individuals, just like yourself. Subject to making mistakes. Well-meaning, but wrong on occasion. That's just human. We can live with that. We can deal with that. We can still make deals with that. Thanks for participating. Good luck, and good business!” (edited – see Appendix 8 for full posting) © 2006, University of Essex Page 46 of 198
  • 47. Feedback Forum: The promise “Feedback is each user's reputation on eBay. It fosters trust between people by acting as both an incentive to do the right thing and as a mark of distinction for those who conduct transactions with respect, honesty and fairness” (, n.d., f). As perhaps the best known and most copied of today’s reputation systems, eBay suggest that the feedback forum should not be used as a communication tool between the buyer and seller, as “it is a representation of a member's reputation on eBay” (, n.d.). After transacting on eBay, buyers and sellers are encouraged to publicise their experiences by posting comments and rating the quality of their interactions, highlighting, for example, the quality of the goods received, rudeness and/or a slow service. "The feedback shows, you won't get hosed...when you do it eBay!" ("Do It eBay" US TV commercial, cited in Steiner, 2003) As a public forum, in addition to signalling members’ reputations (helping filter the ‘trustworthy’ from the ‘untrustworthy’), the intention is towards a positive experience for all by incentivising co-operative conduct and reducing instances of opportunism. As a brand, AuctionWeb/eBay had no control of the service quality it was mediating. Thus, enforcing good behaviour through community-provided feedback, it was assumed, would serve to bolster its brand experience. Feedback Forum: A Flawed Miracle Worker? “Despite their theoretical and practical difficulties, it is reassuring that reputation systems appear to perform reasonably well. Systems that rely on the participation of large numbers of individuals accumulate trust simply by operating effectively over time. Already, Internet-based reputation systems perform commercial alchemy. On auction sites, for example, they enable trash to be shuttled across the country and in the process transmuted into treasures” (Resnick et al., 2000: 48). The feedback forum does have its faults as we shall indicate later. However, despite an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ problem13 existing; in general, the eBay community tend to have great 13 Concerning eBay’s feedback system, Calkins (2001) argues that an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ problem exists, whereby there are a lot of people pretending that the feedback system deters fraud, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. © 2006, University of Essex Page 47 of 198
  • 48. faith in the feedback system. For example, as one of our respondents indicated, the feedback system may quash any pre-registration concerns, then continue to provide reassurance, despite holes in its cover appearing: I was a bit, I don’t know, wary about registering at the start. A bit concerned that there might be a lot of sharks about, might get ripped off, things might not turn up. But when I learnt about the feedback system and how transparent it all is, I was quite reassured about that and I’ve not really had any bad experiences. Not major ones, anyway. (Focus Group, M3) Essentially, as the quote below offers, one could argue that using the feedback forum to inform one’s buying and selling decisions, is a ‘sure lot safer than shooting in the dark’: “I think one of the best features about eBay is the "feedback" system! While I'm sure it's not 100 % safe to base your buying or selling decision on the "feedback" system, it's sure a lot safer than shooting in the dark!” (Kaznoc, n.d.). Overall, despite being flawed and practically challenged, reputation systems such as eBay’s “nonetheless appears to perform miracles” (Resnick et al., 2000: 48). The power and, in particular, the promises of its feedback forum have helped eBay grow from a small community into a worldwide business of phenomenal proportions. Feedback is a key part of the workings of eBay’s self-regulating market, and one that our participants generally regarded as effective in ‘policing’ behaviour for buyers and sellers. As Resnick and Zeckhauser (2001: 3) comment “the system need not be theoretically sound in order to work … it may only be necessary that both buyers and sellers believe that the system or some part of the system works”. Feedback is thought to make eBay a ‘better’ place through the ‘sword of Damocles’ that is a negative feedback. Sellers, in particular, never know when someone asking a question is likely to become their highest bidder and potentially leave a negative review for not answering a question in a timely or polite fashion – so sellers feel they have pressure to conform to customer expectations under the feedback system: C: I think everyone’s quite nice really. Well they have to be, otherwise they’d get bad feedback. I think everyone’s scared about getting bad feedback. I’m always extra nice, if I e-mail them I’m extra nice, extra polite in case anyone says anything about anything. It’s like extra! They know I’m really nice, then no- one would say anything bad about you. Everyone seems very friendly. I don’t go on the community © 2006, University of Essex Page 48 of 198
  • 49. pages though. Ask seller a question, they always get back to you - ‘sorry I was late.’ You know, it’s OK, a couple of days but… R: You think that’s because of feedback? C: Yes, I think so. If I see like a page, or like ten pages of description but there’s like one line of bad comments I’d be like ‘well’ [mimics folding arms and disapproval] - even if there’s just one. A: Yeah, I mean I am kind of glad that… That makes dealers a bit more efficient, especially if they’re sort of professional dealers. I think the dealer I was trying to get this ring from actually makes a living off selling these rings as a sort of third party dealer. Um, and she was very efficient in getting back to me with most of my questions. So, that was really excellent. (Focus group 1E). Moreover, in addition to overcoming some of the anonymity inherent in Internet transactions, this ‘community policing’ approach can be seen to offer some psychological benefits – e.g. users are given a public voice and the feeling that (whether true or not) they exercise some control over the transaction situation (Calkins, 2001). 3.6.1 Feedback: The logistics “To date, eBay members worldwide have left more than 3 billion feedback comments for one another regarding their eBay transactions. The 3 billionth feedback comment was left in March 2005” (, n.d., g). Following transactions, eBay members have the opportunity to rate their trading partners with a Positive, Negative or Neutral feedback, accompanying this rating with a textual comment concerning the member’s experience of the transaction, in 80 characters or less - see figure 6 for a copy of the feedback form. As Russell (n.d.: 2) notes, the provision of comments is important, as “the point system alone does not provide the granularity necessary” for users to assess the trustworthiness of another eBayer. eBay advise regarding the relative permanence of one’s rating and comment, suggesting that all comments are truthful, factually concerning the transaction rather than being personal remarks. While users can view these comments, in order to view the item involved in the transaction they need to link from the item number (see figure 8) – item descriptions remain on the site for a limited period after the auction has finished. Only one submission of feedback is permitted per transaction. Additionally, to prevent “both attempts to completely undermine someone’s reputation as well as attempts to inflate someone’s © 2006, University of Essex Page 49 of 198
  • 50. rating (e.g. a circle of friends pushing each other’s ratings up in a never ending spiral)” (Kollock, 1999), only feedback from unique users is counted in the overall feedback score, which is calculated according to a three degree scoring system, where positive and negative comments are weighted equally. +1 points to your score for each positive rating and comment left for you 0 points to your score for each neutral rating and comment left for you -1 points to your score for each negative rating and comment left for you Figure 6: The Feedback page. In accordance with HCI best practice, upon accessing this screen the User ID and Item Number are pre-filled fields, thus minimising user input requirements. Moreover, the number of character spaces left available is dynamically updated in accordance with the user’s input (item number has been obscured for confidentiality reasons). As aforementioned, once left, feedback is very difficult to remove from one’s feedback profile. Accordingly, as the figure above reveals, eBay strongly encourage members to resolve issues prior to the submission of negative feedback. Additionally, to ensure a negative feedback score is not submitted by mistake, eBay provide an ‘are you sure-type?’ (confirmation) message before a user attempts to leave negative or neutral feedback (see figure 7). This confirmation step thus helps eliminate the possibility of erroneously leaving a negative, which could taint another’s feedback profile. © 2006, University of Essex Page 50 of 198
  • 51. Figure 7: ‘Confirmation step’ preceding the submission of negative or neutral feedback (i.e. this screen is presented following completion and attempted submission of the feedback form) Unless a member opts to keep their feedback private (a practice that tends to provoke distrust14), a member’s overall feedback score is visibly displayed next to their User ID. Additionally, in the member’s feedback profile, several aggregates of the grades given and a complete list of the comments received (starting with the most recent ones) are publicly displayed – see figures 8 and 9, respectively. Figure 8: Different aggregates of feedback scores, as presented in an eBayer’s feedback profile (, n.d., h). 14 Since most eBayers opt for the default, public feedback option, the eBay community tend to view a person utilising private feedback as untrustworthy. For this reason, coupled with the fact that “if all or most users made their feedback private, the feedback forum would lose much of its advertising and site stickiness value” (Calkins, 2001), eBay provide guidance discouraging users from making their feedback profile private. © 2006, University of Essex Page 51 of 198
  • 52. Figure 9: Feedback comments are presented in reverse chronological order. The option to observe feedback according to that from buyers, from sellers, or feedback left by the eBay member themselves, is also provided through a tab system. Making the investigation of feedback difficult, however, is eBay’s refusal to include tabs to segregate certain categories of feedback (positive, neutral or negative). As eBayers garner individual feedback scores, these begin to accumulate as star ratings, based on successive levels of positive reports - from a yellow star ( ) to a red shooting star ( ) for a score of 100,000 or more (see figure 10). Acting to supplement one’s feedback rating, feedback stars are also valued as they become part of a user’s eBay identity (Boyd, 2002). Indeed, feedback stars become almost like a badge of distinction – a status symbol which allows eBayers to distinguish themselves from others (cf. Bourdieu, 1984). Indeed, further to the expiration of the ‘new user ID icon ( )15 after 30 days (see figure 11), eBay purport that feedback stars act as a ‘symbol of trust and experience’, which highlight the maturity of one’s membership - without a track record of successful transactions with which to market oneself, new eBayers (both buyers and sellers) may be sceptically regarded. 15 eBay changed the icon used to advertise new members (registered for less than 30 days), from a small ‘sunglasses’ icon to that of a ‘shiny new member icon’ ( ), following reports that some members found the original shades confusing and/or not a positive reflection of their eBay reputation (Steiner, 2003b). © 2006, University of Essex Page 52 of 198
  • 53. Figure 10: After members have received 10 positive feedback ratings, they progress through the colours of the eBay feedback rainbow (eBay, n.d., i). Figure 11: Guidance on eBay’s new User icons and changed user ID icons, which are presented next to a member’s User ID. During this 30-day window when the icons appear, a member cannot change their User ID or provide a new e-mail address for this account (, n.d., j). © 2006, University of Essex Page 53 of 198
  • 54. 3.6.2 Feedback: The reality Overall, despite good intentions, eBay’s feedback system represents a hotbed of controversy with instances of feedback padding16, retaliation or extortion being reported in the literature (Steiner, 2003a – see Appendix 2 for the results of a related AuctionBytes survey). Concerning this, our qualitative data revealed that while respondents reported a certain degree of faith in the feedback system, many highlighted instances (based on either personal or second-hand experience), which reveal acknowledgement of a flawed system prone to ways to ‘cheat the system’ and feedback which is often submitted quid-pro-quo. Moreover, rather than being solely used to comment on past transactions for the good of the community, many eBayers seem too ‘in love’ with their own feedback to use the tool as it was originally prescribed. “eBay feedback is only a tool for buyers and sellers to comment on past transactions. The comments allow people to get an idea of the way people will act in future eBay deals, and avoid problems. Don't fall in love with your feedback” (Gibbs, n.d.) The following sections will present literature and supporting evidence from our fieldwork, which highlight user experience insights concerning eBay’s feedback forum. Community investment or ‘scratching one’s own back’? Although eBayers are encouraged to leave feedback after each transaction for the good of the wider community, feedback submission is not mandatory and so the possibility to ‘free ride’ exists for both buyers and sellers alike - many transactions are concluded without being reflected in the respective party’s profile. Indeed, as standard economic theory would predict, generally speaking, people are not inclined to voluntarily contribute to the provision of such public goods - they tend to free ride on the contributions of others (Bowles and Gintis, 2002, cited in Dellarocas et al., 2003). 16 Since changes to the eBay system in 2000, which prescribed that all feedback must be linked to a transaction, feedback padding is harder. However, it is still possible to hold sham auctions to build up a positive profile by soliciting comments from friends, relatives or bogus accounts owned by the seller. Here, without any actual transaction taking place, the opportunity to leave feedback is granted for the mere cost of the eBay fees – these are typically low in such cases, as low cost items tend to be used for sham auctions. © 2006, University of Essex Page 54 of 198
  • 55. As our research suggests, the omission of feedback can relate to a number of factors. eBayers may simply lack the motivation to spend additional time or effort on the transaction, in order to leave a feedback score. In our study, although it was revealed that feedback submission was almost an additional (and optional) step in the transaction process, many felt obliged to leave feedback, aware that it was ‘how the system works’: […] It takes a bit of effort to leave feedback, not a huge amount but, you know you, would imagine maybe that it’s something that people don’t do, but overwhelmingly, it seems that people do leave feedback. And therefore I do to, because it’s acknowledged that’s how the system works. J: […] that will be the down fall - when people stop leaving feedback. You know, you have a hundred transactions and no comment at all against you, am I parting with a £100? No way. (Focus Group, E3) For those who do not commit to this ‘additional step’, our fieldwork revealed that, for some, it was simply that eBay was not perceived as a community in which these people wanted to invest. Rather, eBay may solely be regarded as a shopping medium. In this vein, one focus group respondent - who had initially abstained from eBay believing it to be a site “for real collectors only, and that you couldn’t bid for every day stuff” (Focus Group, M1) - reported his tendency to not leave feedback because he considers eBay to just be another ‘shop’, and after the transaction is over, his shopping objective is achieved: “Don’t really feel a sense of community [on eBay]. It’s just a place where I go and buy stuff - just like the shops. No sense of community down at the shops, ever” (Focus Group, M1). On eBay, sellers may also purely regard eBay as a means to advertise their wares. Indeed, as reported in one of our focus groups, some eBay sellers may simply collect feedback themselves, so adding to their credibility, while choosing to shirk any responsibility to leave feedback for the good of other community members: KM: I don’t think I’ve ever given feedback, and I don’t think I ever will, I’m mean, I just don’t see the point. PL: Really? You should because it’s … the idea is that, that way, people can… I do find myself, I found a seller the other day who had four-hundred-odd feedback and hadn’t left a single piece of feedback. I was really shocked. KM: Four-hundred-odd what? PL: He’d been left four-hundred for him but he hadn’t left anyone any feedback. KM: No, I just don’t see the point in it. I give you the cheque you give me the goods. See you and have © 2006, University of Essex Page 55 of 198
  • 56. a nice life. (Focus Group, E2) Despite the incentive to ‘free ride’, the literature reveals that in excess of half the transactions on eBay result in feedback from the buyer and/or seller (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001). Indeed, as reported by Steiner (2003a), although “eBay does not disclose data regarding the feedback percentages on its site, anecdotal evidence suggests that the percentage of auctions where both buyer and seller leave feedback for each other lies somewhere between 50-70%”. Worthy of note, however, is that levels of voluntary feedback contribution are not strongly driven by pure altruism or even a ‘warm glow’ feeling of adhering to community norms or - as Resnick and Zeckhauser (2001: 5) suggest – “some quasi-civic duty”. “I always leave feedback, of some sort, on nearly all my dealings, simply because it’s fair, and I like people to leave things about me…” (Arthur, radio collector) Indeed, as Dellarocas et al.’s (2003) analysis of data from 51,452 eBay rare coin auctions (collected in 2002) demonstrates, the motivation to participate in eBay’s review system is multifaceted, with self-interest intentions featuring highly. Dellarocas et al. (2003) found that, as some eBayers exhibit reciprocity towards partners who rated them first, this fosters a selfish motivation to rate one’s transaction partner in order to increase the probability of a reciprocal response. The fear of retaliation, which we shall discuss later, may also result in ‘collusive behaviour’ between buyers and sellers, especially between those with predominantly positive feedback (Gross and Acquisti, 2003). Get every feedback notch you can – as long as they’re positive! Even though, on eBay, “the presence of a negative feedback may not be an immediate cause for alarm” (Eaton, 2002: 18), a high, positive feedback rating is seen as an extremely valuable asset. Accordingly, eBay members (buyers and sellers) often go out of their way to nurture a positive feedback history (Kollock, 1999; Gross and Acquisti, 2003), aware that the quality of one’s feedback could impact on how they are treated in future trading situations: 16% of AuctionByte’s respondents answered that they would be less likely to transact with a low-feedback user and 47% said ‘it depends’ (Steiner, 2003a). As we shall discuss later, on occasion, bidders with proportionately high negative ratings (or low number of feedback scores) are penalised through © 2006, University of Essex Page 56 of 198
  • 57. exclusion from certain auctions (Prock, n.d.). For sellers, it is feared that higher negative ratings will result in lower bidding prices (Lee et al., 2000). As the above suggests, some eBayers base their decision to trade on subjective notions of an acceptable level of negative feedback. Obviously, due to the way reputations are reported on eBay, negative feedback is less apparent for players with mature scores, which reflect a large number of positive ratings (Gross and Acquisti, 2003). For members with less mature profiles, however, even a single negative rating could significantly affect their overall feedback score. Additionally, as eBay’s overall scoring system does not distinguish between buying and selling activities, conceivably, a person could be a horrible seller (100% negative ratings when selling) but a wonderful buyer (100% positive ratings when bidding), or vice versa, so attracting a ‘mid- level’ score (Russell, n.d.). Despite such problems, many eBayers still have some subjective notion of what constitutes an acceptable (raw) feedback score. Although not widely reported in our study, for those who did comment, ‘acceptable’ feedback ratings of 98-99% were mooted, which accords with the requirements for Paypal Buyer Protection (“at least 98% of the seller's eBay feedback [must be] positive” (PayPal, 2006)), Trading Assistants, and eBay’s PowerSeller Programme (“PowerSellers… exemplary members who are held to the highest standards of professionalism, having achieved and maintained a 98% positive feedback rating and an excellent sales performance record” (, n.d., k). Concerning feedback rating scores, the following comments represent a sample of the distinctions recorded in our study: […] if it’s round about 99%, I just take it as a given, that it’s good enough. (Focus Group, E1) Oh that person’s got a 100% rating or they’ve got a 95% rating, if they’ve got a 95% rating I look twice. (Clive, radio collector). It’s all like this, we’re all in such competition, you think if you’ve got 100% they’re going to go for you rather than somebody who’s got 98 or 99%. (Valerie, experience diary follow up interview). Due to such concerns, good, honest eBayers are especially upset about their first negative comment or even their first neutral, even though their overall feedback rating is not affected by neutral reviews - neutrals are believed to constitute ‘weak negatives’, which indicate displeasure with the transaction (Calkins, 2001). Regards this, Resnick (2003) considers that sellers have © 2006, University of Essex Page 57 of 198
  • 58. become overly sensitive to negative or even neutral reviews because they tend to be so rare – “if negative feedback [was] given 5% or 10% of the time, on average, then sellers would worry about keeping their percentage down, but wouldn’t be as concerned” as they currently are. For many, they are especially vexed if they feel that their transaction partner did little to resolve the situation before issuing a ‘black mark’ against their reputation. Valerie, an eBay seller of vintage jewellery, comments on her feelings regarding this, highlighting that some eBayers leave negative comments “willy nilly” without thinking through the personal and business impact of their actions: You’ve got to be so careful because some people just do it willy nilly. And [eBay] does say that you’re publicly commenting and giving bad press to this person. […] And this young man who bought this ring off me - he had the chance to think: ‘I’m ruining her reputation, and perhaps I should have asked a question or contacted her the day after, and not kept it for a week.’ People have said to me, with all this feedback that you’ve got don’t worry about this one neg. But it is upsetting. (Valerie, experience diary follow up interview) On occasion, a negative review provides the first (and only) signal that a buyer is dissatisfied with any aspect of the transaction. In particular, perhaps unfamiliar with eBay etiquette, ‘newbie’ bidders ‘rush in’ with their negative feedback without any attempt to resolve the situation first. The following feedback entries (figure 12), drawn site observation, reveal that sellers will often reward a ‘hasty newbie’ with a reciprocal negative, presenting a warning to other sellers through their comment. Figure 12: Sellers may reward a ‘hasty newbie’ with a reciprocal negative, presenting a warning to other sellers in their comment. With the number of feedback scores being important in order to appear more credible as a seller, new eBayers often aim to acquire a number of positive comments through the purchase or sale of low value items, in order to achieve a good price for a higher value item. While this strategy © 2006, University of Essex Page 58 of 198
  • 59. can sometimes be used with dishonest intentions, as we shall highlight next, honest eBayers often do this in recognition of the power an established positive profile can have: And the main reason I sold this first thing, was because I’d been chatting to my brother about this feedback thing. And I thought I would need to get some good feedback so I could get as much money for my next item. So, I thought I’d sell some crappy items, that don’t cost very much, to build my feedback up first. I’ve only sold one thing. I haven’t actually gone onto to sell more things, to build my feedback up more. But I do plan to do that in the future. (Focus Group, M1) Where potential sellers do not have the time or inclination to build their own feedback profile - as a consequence or general eBay activity or, as above, through a number of low value transactions - another option is to benefit from an existing member’s mature feedback profile, by letting them sell on your behalf. One of our focus group members informed told how she’d sold stuff for family members. As she reported being ‘cagey’ about dealing with low feedback sellers, herself, selling on another’s behalf was deemed a viable option, especially where higher value items were involved: And I have actually sold stuff for people if they haven’t got any feedback and they know that you need feedback to sell stuff really, so I’ve sold stuff for people as well […] I’m very cagey about whether I’ll buy things from people who haven’t got much feedback - if it’s not worth very much then you probably will give them the benefit of the doubt. If you’re going to be spending a reasonable amount of money, I won’t deal with people who haven’t got much feedback. (Focus Group, M2) Although adopting a more formalised format, and billed not exclusively as a way to reap rewards from another’s reputation (where high value items are concerned), eBay’s ‘Trading Assistant Program’ allows people to ‘hire’ a Trading Assistant’ to sell goods on their behalf where the value or expected sale price of the goods is at least £50. eBay promote this program with the main tagline, “Want to sell your stuff on eBay but don't have the time? Let a Trading Assistant do it for you!” (, n.d., l). eBay’s stipulation that all Trading Assistants should have a “good standing in the eBay community” (, n.d., l), which actually equates to a 98%+ feedback rating, suggests that the program would benefit those with immature and/or negative heavy profiles, as well as those who are time-harried. © 2006, University of Essex Page 59 of 198
  • 60. In addition to supporting the path of honest eBayers, by helping them foster a decent feedback score through very little investment as either a buyer or seller, eBay’s feedback system also works in the favour of eBayers with dishonest intentions. Indeed, despite the promise offered by unique scoring, where only feedback from unique users contributes to the overall feedback score, ways to cheat the (feedback) system are witnessed. For example, there is still the danger of individual eBayers using multiple accounts/identities to achieve these ends (Kollock, 1999). Similarly, dishonest feedback can come from ‘phantom’ transactions undertaken solely to generate feedback (Miller et al., 2002) or, as reported by Dingledine et al. (2001), as eBay feedbacks are not weighted, a vendor can build a strong reputation through a large number of honest, low-value transactions and then be dishonest for a single large transaction. As reported during our fieldwork, a number of our participants were aware of such risks: AP: There are a lot of eBay scams on eBay. For example I’ve seen people selling laptops with pretty high ratings and I go and read their feedback and the only thing they’ve sold is like clothes or very cheap items, and they go for very high feedback. So you think: ‘OK, you can trust this person’. That’s something wrong with eBay. Trust - they should provide another mechanism. R: It should be weighted according to the value of things you sell? AP: I mean, I can sell a lot of things for a pound, and I can suddenly sell something for a £1000. I just get the money and run. (Focus Group, M4) Once a respectable number of positive feedbacks have been achieved, the desire to protect this rating by removing the potential for negative reviews may encourage sellers to adopt a number of strategies (see also the next section). For example, sellers often go out of their way to avoid attracting negative feedback scores and comments, even if doing so constitutes a cost to themselves, in terms of issuing a refund or replacement to a ‘dissatisfied’ customer. As Helen, one of self-employed eBay sellers highlights, the desire to maintain a high positive rating can encourage sellers to adopt a policy where ‘the customer is always right’: It’s very important because people do take notice of negatives, er, and we will bend over backwards not to get a negative. So for instance we tend to, er, if someone complains that it had a chip in and we didn’t say it had a chip … we will just refund them the money rather than risk getting a bad feedback (Helen, self-employed eBay seller) Helen’s account of giving ‘dissatisfied’ buyers a refund, even in instance where one could argue it was not due, are in accordance with a number of accounts on the Web, which advise sellers to © 2006, University of Essex Page 60 of 198
  • 61. protect their feedback rating whatever the ‘cost’. For example, the following entry from an online guide for eBayers (, n.d.) advises that “any positive feedback percentage under 100% [is] an absolute disaster”. Accordingly, to be a successful eBay seller, on no account is the customer wrong, however much time or money it might cost - disputes should be avoided at all costs: Is the eBay Customer Always Right? I can answer this question for you right now: the answer is ‘yes’. In fact, the answer is ‘YES!’ – the biggest yes you’ve ever heard. Of the course the customer is always right. If you want to be a successful eBay seller, you should go miles out of your way to make sure every single one of your customers is 100% satisfied, however much time or money it might cost you. A dissatisfied customer will leave negative feedback, and negative feedback is to be avoided at all costs. That one piece of negative feedback will always cost you more than it would have to deal with the complaint, whatever the value of the items you sell. You should consider any positive feedback percentage under 100% to be an absolute disaster, and a personal failure on your part. But What If… But nothing! There is no situation where you, as a seller, should get into any dispute with a buyer. (, n.d.) As well as discouraging negative reviews, sellers, in particular, appear on a mission to accrue every ‘feedback notch’ they can – as long as they are positive, of course. Not wanting to waste a single opportunity to bolster their reputation, after the transaction sellers may subtly (or not so subtly) encourage buyers to provide positive feedback at the end of successful transactions. “The buyer may choose to withhold feedback until they receive their merchandise, to describe the condition received, timeliness of shipping, and whether or not the item purchased on eBay was received as described. But in several cases, the buyer doesn't always follow up on that, which causes the seller to miss out on a very valuable selling tool […] A lot goes into listing, packaging, and shipping an item. It seems only fair those actions should be rewarded with a feedback acknowledgment to inform the seller how they did with that transaction […] [S]end a gentle reminder to the buyer notifying them that you have left feedback regarding their part of the © 2006, University of Essex Page 61 of 198
  • 62. transaction and request that they do the same upon receipt of their order. This method is generally well accepted and typically yields the desired results”. (Prock, n.d.) To accrue feedback, our fieldwork revealed that some eBay sellers may resort to sending an e- mail to their transaction partner, as a polite reminder to leave feedback for a given transaction: “The first one I did, like she e-mailed me and said: ‘You haven’t left me feedback yet, when are you going to leave feedback?’ I was going to do it anyway” (Focus Group, M4). Due to personal experience, despite many such e-mails having a polite nature, daily e-mail requests to leave feedback (from the same seller) can foster a ‘discouragement to comply’, resulting in the omission of feedback. Alternatively, as the following comment from indicates, pressurising a buyer to leave feedback, may ultimately backfire on the seller, if the buyer’s experience of the hassling and spamming (for feedback) is particularly negative: “I still find it odd that a seller would goad me into feedback, when I’ve been purposefully avoiding it. Feedback: Negative - Kept spamming me to provide feedback” (Asymptomatic, 2006). In our study, while strategies to optimise one’s feedback were largely reported from sellers, attracting a good feedback reputation is not just a seller’s concern - buyers may also benefit from a sterling reputation. However, as argued by one of our focus group respondents (who was largely a buyer), rates of negative feedback may matter less for buyers than sellers as, in some respects, the feedback rating of bidders only becomes an issue when the auction has closed and the winning bidder has been declared. … I don’t think that should be, um… you know, I don’t think I should like lie about it [when reviewing the transaction], just because I’m worried about getting negative feedback, because I mostly buy anyway, and the negative feedback doesn’t matter, because you can’t see someone’s feedback until the auction’s finished. (Focus Group, M2) The reputation of bidders who amass roughly 90% of eBay’s registered population (Tedeschi, 2004), can also be regarded to be less significant, because sellers can hold goods until they are paid for and, if payment does not materialise, the situation can be diffused by turning to the © 2006, University of Essex Page 62 of 198
  • 63. second high bidder17 (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001). However, while such accounts may largely hold true, evidence does reveal that bidders with low or proportionately high negative ratings are occasionally penalised by being “excluded from bidding on certain auctions, or required to contact the seller prior to making a bid on their item” (Prock, n.d.): […] you want to maintain your reputation, especially on eBay - because if you want to buy something you need, you have to maintain that reputation, because if you don’t, and it gets round this eBay community that you’re unreliable, um, people can refuse to sell to you. You might bid for something, and you might win it, and they might refuse to sell to you because your reputation is bad, and they’ve got no guarantee. You know - you’re not going to send them the money, or something of that nature. (Neil, stamp and cover collector) eBay allow sellers to exclude bidders at any time prior to a listing closing if the bidder does “not meet the seller’s terms as outlined in the item listing” (, n.d., m). Through observation of the eBay site, it would appear that, although there is no specified format for deterring ‘undesirable’ bidders, sellers’ item descriptions often state criteria such as “bidders with less than 10 feedbacks will have their bids cancelled or that zero bidders should make contact before submitting their bid”. As figure 13 exemplifies, sellers often justify their decision by stating that they wish to ensure that serious bidders are only bidding against other serious bidders and not those who intend to maliciously disrupt a listing: Figure 13: A note in a seller’s item description, which lays out the criteria for ‘eligible bidders’ (, n.d., 2006 – expired listing) As our fieldwork reveals, such warnings are not always heeded by bidders, who often bid regardless. Although eBay suggest that sellers “report a buyer who participated in a listing without meeting the listing terms” (, n.d., m), it would appear that sellers are not always clear about what they should do in such situations. As the following quote reveals, given that criteria are often ignored, in reality, it may come down to sellers just hoping that undesirable bidders don’t win their auctions: “[…] I used to write in my description a little note asking all bidders with zero feedback to 17 This possibility that has been greatly enhanced since the advent of ‘second chance offer’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 63 of 198
  • 64. contact me first before placing a bid, did they read it, no just placed a bid and completely ignored me, waste of time, well at least this item has a reserve and she hasn't met it yet” (Valerie, vintage jewellery seller, Blog, 21st July 2005). Bidders with a minus feedback rating, in particular, are often regarded to not be ‘worth the hassle’, as our study revealed. Accordingly, in instances where bidders take no notice of the warnings set out in item descriptions, their bids may be cancelled and their user ID banned from bidding again in this or future auctions (with the same seller): PL: […] I tend to block bidders if they’ve got a minus [negative] feedback like minus one. I don’t want the hassle, especially if it’s a negative for not paying. AH: Even if it’s one? PL: Minus one. I’ve had a few minus one and minus two bidders and I just don’t want to know. I don’t want the hassle. Because often it’s for non-paying, that’s the reason. And I think I don’t want the run- around, so cancel their bid, block them and someone else can bid. RW: I had someone like that. PL: I’d rather it didn’t sell than have to have all that hassle. RW: I had someone like that bidding… it was just someone …. Because people go on there just to wreck auctions. (Focus Group, E2) As one of our participants revealed in their Blog, with tales of scams and ‘auction wrecking’ being frequently reported through informal and formal channels, many sellers are also becoming highly suspicious of ‘newbie bidders’ (defined by their low feedback scores), especially if they perceive that eBay’s registration process is less than adequate. Calkins (2001) argues that eBay’s registration system provides a bare minimum of user screening, and this, effectively, shifts the regulatory burden onto post-registration policing systems such as the feedback forum. Where bidders are new and have no feedback, the feedback system can add no value in terms of indicating their trustworthiness in previous auctions. As one of our participants commented in their Blog, in such instances sellers may become worried and paranoid that a newbie bidder may be someone they’ve previously had a disagreement with, come back to cause trouble: […] I have just noticed I have a zero feedback bidder on one of my items lives in the U.S. I hope she is genuine, and not that nasty person who swore and never paid me, it is so easy to set up an account with ebay, lots of people have more then one user I.D. new members don't even have to verify there address anymore, ebay should have a type of credit reference check for new members, then there wouldn't be so many auction wreckers. (Valerie, vintage jewellery seller, Blog, 21st July 2005) © 2006, University of Essex Page 64 of 198
  • 65. The fear of bad feedback & retaliatory ‘negs’ Although not binding, eBay strongly encourage buyers and sellers to negotiate and work out their problems before resorting to negative feedback. Arguably, as Calkins (2001) points out, eBay almost seem to promote a ‘good news only policy’ by attempting to subtly discourage negative feedback, applying pressure through warnings18, by encouraging feedback to remain in the public eye, and by not adequately protecting users from the consequences of a bad transaction or instances of negative feedback. Even though the removal of negative feedback is more formal than it used to be, removal procedures are ‘not crystal clear’, due to the arguable flexibility of eBay’s guidelines (Calkins, 2001). Thus, due to their ‘permanent’ trace, users typically fear the receipt of a negative rating, especially those with less ‘mature’ profiles, which would greatly suffer from even a single negative review19. AC: That’s one thing. Because my record’s a 100%. I’d be very upset if anyone messed it up. Just because it’s a public forum, and you don’t want to give someone a bad mark, if you can possibly avoid it. M: I’d agree really. I think I wouldn’t like my own feedback rating, er, you know, for anyone to leave negative feedback. (Focus Group, M3) While eBay’s dissuasion against the negative partially account for the relative paucity of negative (or neutral) feedback ratings, this not the whole story. Rather, it would appear that incentives to provide feedback apply ‘much less forcefully’ when the transaction experience has been negative (Resnick and Zeckhauser 2001), especially as there is only ‘pseudonymity’20 rather than anonymity when giving negative reviews – the user ID is always associated with each rating and 18 As highlighted by Calkins (2001), feedback entry pages contain warnings that feedback leavers are responsible for their own words and that, once submitted, feedback cannot be removed. 19 Because of the way reputations are reported on eBay, negative feedback is less apparent for players with mature scores that reflect a large number of positive ratings – e.g. (Gross and Acquisti, 2003). For members with less mature profiles, however, even a single negative rating could significantly affect their overall feedback score. 20 In most existing reputation systems, only ‘pseudonymity’ is offered. eBay’s system contains a greater measure of identity and, thus, accountability, than reputation systems which use pseudonyms alone. Indeed, initial registration on eBay requires submission of one’s name and address information and an email address of one’s choice, and active use of eBay (i.e. completing transactions) necessitates buyers disclosing a postal address and, perhaps, sellers offering the same, if cheque or postal order payment is chosen. © 2006, University of Essex Page 65 of 198
  • 66. comment (Ba and Pavlou, 2002). As several authors have suggested and our own research supports, due to the expectation of reciprocity and fears concerning the award of negative reviews, eBayers tend to be hesitant to record a negative (or even a neutral) rating for fear of endangering their own feedback profile. Specifically, there are concerns that their trading partner could ‘tarnish’ their reputation by retaliating and issuing the same in return, as a ‘punishment’, even if it is not justified. Of course, any resistance to leave a negative review may diminish, once the other party has left positive feedback – dissatisfied parties can then be completely frank without fear of a retaliatory response. With the threat of retaliatory feedback hanging over their heads, and the reluctance of eBay to adequately intervene in such circumstances, the typical ‘solution’ dissatisfied parties adopt is to leave no feedback at all for their transaction partner. In particular, patterns of moderate discontent tend to remain invisible, with only really bad transactions being reported (Resnick et al., 2000). Thus, as Gross and Acquisti (2003) suggest, on occasion, no feedback acts as a proxy for negative feedback, a finding supported by qualitative data in our study. For example, the following comment from a focus group session, in which a buyer decided not to give negative feedback to a seller who failed to meet him at a pre-arranged place to exchange a laptop for the buyer’s cash, highlights concern over eBay’s lack of a suitable feedback resolution policy. The buyer suspected the seller’s reluctance was due to the low price which the laptop reached: F: Did you give them a bad write up? A: No, because if I did, I thought that people also give me a negative feedback, so anytime it’s a mess, and you can’t get out of it then, because there’s no conflict resolution policy. There is, but it’s not going to work […] So I decided to just leave it. (Focus group 4M) Fear of ‘retaliatory negs’ may also encourage dissatisfied eBayers (both buyers and sellers) to leave a ‘weak positive’, where a positive point is given but the actual comment suggests that the transaction could have been better (Calkins, 2001). Arguably, as many users will not look beyond the positive rating, such comments often ‘fall on deaf ears’ (Calkins, 2001). Fear of retaliation can also lead to courteous submissions, where the rating and comments are both positive, despite the transaction being less than adequate, as Gregory, one of our radio collectors, indicates: … I mean eBay is, you know, they’ve obviously got some pretty good software engineers. It works well. I mean, certain things don’t work well, like the feedback system doesn’t work. Erm, that doesn’t © 2006, University of Essex Page 66 of 198
  • 67. work. I hardly … well I always leave feedback, but it’s always good, even if the things … even if I haven’t … even if it hasn’t been exactly as described and all that, well, I just learnt you might as well just forget it and just say, you know … Don’t bother with leaving negative, anyway. Leave neutral but don’t bother with negative, because negative is a waste of time, because I guarantee that they’ll immediately come back with a negative on you, which will invariably not be true…So, the feedback doesn’t work. (Gregory, radio collector) While both strategies of ‘feedback omission’ and ‘weak positives’ remove the possibility of a ‘retaliatory neg’ (or neutral rating), no trace of the negative encounter is recorded for the prosperity of all eBayers – the eBay reputation rating is biased21 and the most important information is lost (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001). With instances of feedback omission occurring for a number of reasons, ‘trusting buyers’ can get annoyed when they discover that they’ve based their decision to trade (with another eBayer) on a ‘biased feedback’ profile, which lacks the essential information they require: “But it’s really annoying when you just get poor customer service from someone who’s got loads of positive feedback and you think ‘what’s the point of this, this is giving me no information about them at all” (Focus Group, M2). Alternatively, the dissatisfied party may misinterpret the specifics of their transaction, perhaps even attributing part of the blame to themselves (e.g. poor communication), if the poor performance was from a member with a seemingly ‘perfect record’. This suggestion fits in with Eiser and White’s (2005) account, which argues that, to maintain cognitive consistency, people tend to attenuate negative messages concerning those whom they already highly trust – due to a confirmation bias “negative information may be dismissed as unreliable, a misinterpretation or an exception to the rule” (Eiser and White, 2005: 15). Regarding retaliation, one report suggests that if an “eBay buyer does give negative feedback, the seller gives negative feedback 34% of the time” (Miller et al., 2002: 4). Prior to the buyer leaving feedback, however, the fact that a seller’s feedback (if public) is ‘visible’ to potential buyers, signals that eBay sellers are even more reluctant to give negative feedback than buyers, because they are keen to keep their 100% reputations. eBay sellers mostly give negatives to non-paying bidders, but typically only as a last resort after giving the buyer an optimal 21 As Gross and Acquisti (2003) note, this bias may not work against the system itself, since making dissatisfaction more visible could reduce faith on the marketplace. © 2006, University of Essex Page 67 of 198
  • 68. opportunity to ‘fix the problem’: “I’ve left negatives on non-paying bidders. […] I was very, very reluctant to do it. And gave them lots of opportunity to fix the problem, but eventually ran out if patience with them and left negative feedback a couple of times” (Focus Group, M3). However, as our fieldwork reports, many sellers have not been leaving negatives – opting for positives instead - even in instances involving non-paying bidders, because of the fear of retaliatory negatives, as exemplified by Alan a seller of vintage textiles. Alan’s quote also indicates that some sellers may potentially leave feedback in ‘batches’, especially where multiple auctions have been conducted: At last I have managed to catch up with leaving feedback, I really should leave the two non payers negative feedback , but what's the point, I am proud of all my positive feedback with no negs and I am sure the two who didn't pay will leave retaliatory feedback , ebay should really stop them being able to leave negative , they know the person does not pay , after all they get the non paying bidder alert, so they should do something with the system so that person can not leave any feedback at all., I bet there are a lot of other sellers like me who are scared of leaving negative for non payment, just incase there good reputation is ruined . (Alan, vintage textile seller, Blog, 22nd July 2005) Even when sellers utilise eBay’s non-paying bidder system, and the situation is still not resolved, the reluctance to follow this up with a ‘negative feedback often results in sellers opting to leave no feedback at all, as a compromise. As the following quote suggests, the tendency for sellers to conclude problematic transactions with no feedback is often guided by an investigation of the other party’s feedback profile, to see if they habitually ‘respond in kind’. PL: […] I’ve got like one negative feedback and I just don’t want to upset anyone anymore. And I know a lot of sellers are like that because they’ve got all this perfect feedback. And they won’t neg non- paying bidders because they don’t want retaliation feedback. RW: I’m a bit like that at the moment. I’ve got one guy who I’ve been chasing up for, erm, a month and a half, just to respond to an e-mail. And I’m really reluctant to go through the non-paying programme and then leave negative feedback […] ALL: [laughs]. PL: Sometimes I do a non-paying bidder [alert] without leaving them negative, because that way it doesn’t show up to other users but if they keep doing it they do get suspended. So I think that’s quite a good... […] If you look and they’d had couple of negs and they’ve responded in kind, then I just don’t leave them any feedback. But I do a non-paying bidder because I need and value my feedback. (Focus Group, E2) Concerning non-paying bidders, eBay have now revised their removal policy, allowing feedback © 2006, University of Essex Page 68 of 198
  • 69. to be removed if it originates from a buyer who failed to ‘respond to an Unpaid Item notification and the member filing the claim issues an Unpaid Item strike’ (, n.d., n). Although, in such instances, the feedback does not count towards a seller’s feedback score, the fact that the comment will remain, albeit accompanied by an administrative note (explaining that the member did not participate in the resolution process), represents an entirely unsatisfactory solution in the authors’ opinions. Amid a general feeling that eBay does little to protect ‘honest sellers’ from non-paying rogues, is often the feeling that sellers should not feel intimidated into omitting negative ratings where they are due – a belief that eBay are in firm agreement with. In terms of this, one of our Blog participants cited comments in an item listing, where the seller explicitly states that they are prepared to leave a negative for ‘non paying bidders’ even if they suffer a negative feedback in return: I have just seen this paragraph in someone else's listing… Please note: I will leave negative feedback for 'non payers' even if they respond with negative feedback in return. This thankfully only applies to a small minority of people but it gives a distorted picture of the feedback system. If EBay are unable (or unwilling) to protect honest sellers from non paying bidders leaving negative feedback then I believe as honest sellers we should not feel intimidated to leave negative feedback when it is due. In all circumstances of course the best action is communication - ignoring emails only exacerbates issues when a simple reply would nip any problems in the bud. Thank you. He obviously feels the same way has me. In fact this seller is a very nice man. Honest and genuine I believe. (Valerie, Vintage Jewellery Seller, Blog, 30th July 2005) Essentially, due to the power afforded by retaliation, leaving feedback is increasingly becoming a parrying match, with many eBayers reluctant to leave feedback for their transaction partner until they have received feedback themselves. In particular, it increasingly appears that sellers are opting to ‘feedback sequence’ in their favour, despite the argument that the buyer has completed their part of the bargain (i.e. payment). In 2003, a survey conducted by AuctionBytes (Steiner, 2003a) revealed that the largest percentage of sellers (37%) leave feedback right after a payment has been received, 18% leave feedback after the customer informs that they’ve © 2006, University of Essex Page 69 of 198
  • 70. received the item, and 15% leave feedback only after the buyer has left feedback for them22. Although we have no published figures for the assumed increase in ‘feedback sequencing’ from sellers, based on both personal experience and data from our fieldwork, it would appear that this phenomenon is on the increase. Arguably, therefore, we suggest that these 2003 figures no longer reflect the current incidence of this practice. Often, the decision to leave feedback reciprocally occurs after sellers have had their ‘fingers burned’. One self-employed eBayer in our study, Alan, who sold vintage textiles, started only leaving feedback after the buyer had left feedback, due to a bad experience with a woman who left a negative review simply because she didn’t like the item: Um, there’s only one person I banned, because you can, to stop them bidding, and she was going on about, um, she didn’t like the fabric, not that it wasn’t what I said it was, she just didn’t like it, and she said: ‘oh well, I’ve got my consumer rights,’ and, you know. So she left me a bad feedback, and I didn’t, […] because I’d already left feedback because she’d paid, and I thought: ‘that’s it - I’m not leaving feedback first again’. (Alan, vintage textile seller) Alan then became very concerned about the possibilities of ‘feedback leverage’ or extortion23 – with eBay buyers having the opportunity to leave negative feedback when he had no possibility of reciprocation, which enabled them to almost ‘blackmail’ him into refunds or returns. He especially saw this as problematic where buyers had bought multiple items, feeling that the buyer may often submit one feedback but left one ‘in reserve’ as a future leverage tactic: I know, and that’s really sad that I have to actually write a list of feedback, and put little, little red marks and say: ‘right, they’ve left two feedbacks,’ and I have to put in brackets ‘but they’ve still got on to go.’ And a number of people, not everyone, but a number of people will keep back the odd feedback. And they will be able to complain about a future product, but they’ll still slam you with one anyway. But if they know you haven’t left feedback and you can do the same to them, they’re less likely 22 The survey also reported the feedback habits of buyers, revealing that “84% of buyers leave feedback after they have received the item; 8% feedback at their convenience; and 4% leave feedback for the seller after the seller leaves feedback for them” (Steiner, 2003a). 23 As defined by Gibbs (n.d.), feedback extortion results where “a seller or a buyer threatens to leave negative feedback in order to force a result” – e.g. a buyer threatening to leave a negative feedback unless they get a discount on their purchase or postage. © 2006, University of Essex Page 70 of 198
  • 71. to, particularly if you’ve got like, you know, four figure feedback and they’ve got two. If you leave feedback, they know it’s going to affect them more than it’s going to affect you. (Alan, vintage textile seller) Alan’s first comment, and the following entry from one of our focus sessions, suggest that sellers may choose to sequence feedback in their favour due to the subjective nature of feedback ratings and the varying ‘benchmarks’ buyers use for making their reviews. For example, even if a seller had intended to appease a dissatisfied buyer by offering a refund, a buyer may still chose to rate the transaction as a negative experience. In the following situation, a buyer reflects on their interaction with a seller who had “kicked up a right stink”, reporting them to eBay for leaving a negative feedback, in the belief that they’d suitably avoided a negative rating: …one time I bought a mobile phone for my mum, and the guy said: ‘It’s in good working order’. He sent it, and it was broken. Just didn’t work at all. So I sent it back, and left him negative feedback, and he kicked up a right stink. He said because he gave me a refund, I shouldn’t have left him negative feedback. Which I completely disagreed with because, you know, he wasted my time and mum didn’t get her birthday present on time and he actually lodged a complaint with eBay about it. (Focus Group, M2) In addition to those whose feedback sequencing has been shaped through personal experiences, are those who’ve taken advice from members of the wider eBay community. As our data and observation of the community boards reveal, increasingly, many (arguably disgruntled) sellers publicly recommend ‘feedback sequencing’ in their submissions to eBay’s community boards: “I know a lot of sellers on the community pages say: ‘for God’s sake don’t leave feedback, ‘till they have’” (Alan, vintage textile seller). PL: It’s like, err … I won’t leave it until they’ve left it - if I’m a seller - because that signifies they’ve got the item and they’re happy with it. And then I leave them feedback. KM: Yeah … PL: Just in case they leave me a really stupid one and I can’t leave one back. (Focus Group, E2) Although many sellers state that they only offer feedback when the transaction is complete (i.e. when the buyer has signalled receipt and contentment with the item), opting to sequence feedback ultimately provides sellers with the option to retaliate if the need arises, as the above excerpt from one of our focus groups reveals. As such, where the seller waits to leave feedback, © 2006, University of Essex Page 71 of 198
  • 72. this may discourage buyers from leaving a negative in the first place. Moreover, evidence suggests that some bidders are resistant to leave feedback first, purely out of principle, believing that etiquette should dictate that sellers leave feedback once payment has been made. And so, once again, feedback information is being lost: Some people I’ve bought from haven’t left me feedback and I think there’s some unspoken etiquette involved in eBay - when you’re the buyer, you send the balance to the seller, and it should be up to them to them leave that. Then when you actually get your goods and you’re happy with them, then, you know, you exchange your feedback. That’s how it works and sometimes I’ve bought things, I have actually had the item though, I’ve had a look at the feedback, and sometimes they’ve left feedback … I don’t actually bother to leave feedback if they haven’t left it for me first, if I’m the buyer that is. (Focus Group, M3) In addition, buyers may be somewhat ‘suspicious’ of a seller withholding feedback in this way. As reported in our study, some buyers may consider feedback from the seller, left prior to their own, as a signal of trustworthiness. In the following example drawn from one of our focus groups, Morley comments on his experience with a parcel being held up at customs. Specifically, although initially believing he had been ‘ripped off’, upon discovering that the seller had left him positive feedback, he realised that other forces may be responsible: One of my first purchases on eBay was a set of Beetles figures from the Yellow Submarine and I bought them from America, they were really cheap, and after a while, nothing turned up, and it was one of my first purchases. I thought I’d been ripped off, only it was a trader, it was a shop sort of thing and they had a lot of positive feedback which I checked out before I bought them, and it turned out that it had been taken for customs charges. But obviously he wouldn’t be aware of that, and I wasn’t - not having bought from America before I didn’t know about it either. And that was the delay. […] So I was e-mailing the seller and having a go at them saying: ‘I haven’t received it.’ But he had actually left me positive feedback. So I thought: ‘Why would he leave me feedback if he’s trying to rip me off.’ So I did realise then that it was probably something else. (Focus Group, M3) With retaliatory feedback being a growing concern, eBay do tackle this issue in their Help pages. However, arguably, the guidance is less than reassuring as eBay dictate that, where comments are believed to be untrue, undeserved, or left in retaliation, this is not considered suitable criteria for removal. In support of this position, eBay’s state “we can't remove the feedback based on © 2006, University of Essex Page 72 of 198
  • 73. these reasons because of two fundamental components of the eBay feedback system” (, n.d., o – bold type is eBay’s emphasis): • First, the system is a member-to-member system and all comments in the Feedback Forum are based on each member's perception of the trading experience. Members are responsible for their own words. • Second, eBay cannot evaluate every feedback for accuracy or fairness. If we began to review and potentially remove feedback comments for these reasons, the removals would be based on our opinion. However, because we were not involved in the transaction, we are not able to form an accurate opinion about who is right and who is wrong. For the integrity of their feedback system, eBay believe that feedback should become a permanent part of that member's record. Accordingly, eBay will not commit to removing actual feedback comments, except “in very exceptional circumstances, when they breach specific policies” (, n.d., n). Situations where eBay will remove feedback include: • Feedback left by a member who is indefinitely suspended within 90 days of registration • Feedback containing vulgar language or personal contact information • Instances when eBay receives a valid court order to remove feedback Trading partners can opt to mutually withdraw feedback ratings, so that they no longer count in the overall feedback score. Feedback left by both parties will be withdrawn at the same time. However, the feedback comment will still publicly appear in the members’ profiles, which is inconvenient – see figure 14. This situation is arguably unsatisfactory, especially in instances of retaliatory feedback, as in order to get an ‘unjustified’ rating removed, a ‘justified’ one must also be removed. Figure 14: An example of mutually with drawn feedback where - despite the negative review not counting towards the overall feedback score – the comments still publicly remain. One ‘solution’ to the permanence of feedback is for the ‘injured party’ to note an explanation in their feedback file, by issuing a reply to the objectionable comment. This feature, therefore, © 2006, University of Essex Page 73 of 198
  • 74. awards an element of control in a situation where one’s profile is scripted by others. Observation of the site shows that this practice is largely used to highlight ‘retaliatory negs’ and/or expose the limited credibility of the original poster (see example below in figure 15). In cases such as the example below, the reply information can be valuable, in terms of helping others decide whether a negative comment is justified24. Figure 15: Use of the Reply function, highlighting its use with regards ‘retaliatory negs’. In this instance, the seller - who was arguably a ‘shark’ - was NARU’d25, following a barrage of negative feedbacks from similarly dissatisfied trading partners. Pollyanna effect Arguably, the eBay feedback system is biased against the negative, with less than one percent of feedback accounting for negative ratings for both buyers and sellers (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001). To account for this bias, two contributory factors can be highlighted. Firstly, it would appear that eBay provide assurances towards an environment where people will be strongly positive – e.g. eBay’s incentive to promote a ‘good news only policy’, pointed out previously, and how member’s feedback scores are calculated, which is seemingly biased towards presenting a high ratio of positive evaluations. As Resnick and Zeckhauser (2001: 18) comment, “eBay merely subtracts the number of negatives from the number of positives, despite the former being much rarer and hence presumably more informative”. Secondly, as the previously section attests, the eBay community, themselves, contribute their own assurances through feedback often being drawn by courtesy or fear of retaliation, and where feedback omissions operate to hide negative experiences. With eBay reputations “inflated towards positive and biased against negative” (Gross and Acquisti, 2003: 4), one could argue that what the feedback forum actually tells us is relatively debatable. Moreover, if feedback scores and comments cannot represent a good proxy 24 Further highlighting their refusal to intervene in retaliation cases, eBay have not responded to pleas requesting ways to effectively minimise the presence of retaliatory negatives by allowing such ratings/comments to be tagged (Calkins, 2001). 25 The words ‘Not a Registered User’ (NARU) next to a member’s User ID means that this person has unregistered from eBay. When a user's status is changed to NARU, all feedback left by this user remains unaltered. Prior to 1999, however, feedback was converted to neutral when a user became no longer registered (, n.d., p). © 2006, University of Essex Page 74 of 198
  • 75. for the degree of buyer/seller satisfaction, and thus a sure-fire reflection of an eBayer’s trustworthiness, the value of the forum is also in dispute. Obviously, high rates of positive feedback act to eBay’s advantage, operating to demonstrate eBay’s success and sending a positive message to both potential bidders and its stockholders, regulators and other outside bodies (Calkins, 2001). Indeed, regarding the former, if visitors to the eBay site see many negative comments, they may be less likely to register and participate in transactions. However, in terms of determining the reputation of potential trading partners, the net feedback scores displayed, which reflect a disproportionately high percentage of positive feedback, reveal the potential for a Pollyanna assessment of reputations (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001). Looking behind the raw numbers Figure 16: Excerpt from ‘Frequently Asked Questions about Feedback Forum: How to use feedback effectively’, where eBay advise that judgements about another’s reputation should not be solely based on their ‘Feedback Rating’ (, n.d., q). Acknowledging the limited value of feedback scores in isolation, eBay suggests that members do their homework, in order to look behind the raw numbers as far as possible – see figure 16, above. The following table, which presents results from a 2003 survey by AuctionBytes, reveals that many eBayers do not take eBay’s advice to do their ‘homework’ - 8% of bidders report no analyse of a seller’s feedback prior to bidding. © 2006, University of Essex Page 75 of 198
  • 76. Table 3: The extent to which a seller’s feedback is analysed prior to the submission of a bid (AuctionBytes survey cited in Steiner, 2003a). • 8% never look at someone's feedback before bidding • 80% look at the number of negatives and neutrals • 61% look at the total number of feedback points • 47% look at whether the seller's past transactions were as a buyer or seller • 32% look at the kinds of things the seller sold in the past • 14% look at the dollar amounts of the seller's previous transactions Despite eBay’s encouragement to “always check a member's Feedback Profile for any negative remarks” (, n.d., q), eBay provides no capability to search for the negative and neutral comments (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001), as they argue that all comments need to be seen in context: users who want to find negatives "will need to go find negatives among all those green positives”, commented William Cobb, President for eBay North America, at eBay Live 2005 (Steiner, 2005). There are tools from third-party vendors (e.g., which facilitate the segregation of certain categories of feedback. However, where such tools are not known or used, eBayers are left with the task of loading and scrolling through the full gamut of feedback reviews, typically 25 at a time, “to find the rare but informative complaints” (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001: 19). The inability to isolate different categories of feedback represented a factor which frustrated some eBayers in our study: A: And if you’ve got a negative … to have a tab for negatives. AC: Yes. Yes, that would be a good idea. Because usually that’s what I’m looking for. […] M: I agree that it would be a good idea to search through - at the moment it’s a page at a time - if they had all the negatives lumped together. (Focus Group, M3) While the feedback system doesn’t allow feedback categories to be segmented in terms of positive, negative or neutral, the system does incorporate a tab feature, which allows feedback to © 2006, University of Essex Page 76 of 198
  • 77. be segmented according to that ‘from buyers’, ‘from sellers’, or feedback left by the member themselves. This feature is useful, as it can provide an indication of what the eBayer is like as a buyer or seller, given that eBay’s overall scoring system doesn’t distinguish between buying and selling activities, as previously noted. For example, an interested party could section out an eBay seller's reviews in order to see what they are like as a seller, rather than such comments ‘getting lost’ in the overall profile. Similarly, by selecting the ‘left for others’ tab, the inquirer could glean an indication of whether the eBayer was in the habit of leaving feedback. Such investigation, therefore, may quash any concerns that a seller may have concerning ‘fulfilment’. Indeed, where a buyer does not contact the seller to indicate displeasure, some sellers might worry if feedback has not been submitted by the buyer. Through investigation, however, the seller may discover that the buyer is not in the habit of leaving feedback. For the following seller in our study, initial worry seemingly turned to dismay that a buyer is not ‘doing their duty’ in terms of feeding eBay’s community-trust model: When I send out jewellery to a buyer if they do not contact me within a few days I assume they like it, when they do not leave any feedback I do start to worry , a lady who bought a ring from me recently did not email to say she was unhappy with her purchase , although she has not left me any feedback , when I looked at her feedback I also checked to see what feedback she has left other sellers and she hasn't left any for anyone , some people are like that and I don't know why . I think it's a good idea to let people know you are happy with that seller or happy with how fast a person pays , after all ebay strives on the good reputation of it's members , and this is the only way to let others know. (Valerie, Vintage Jewellery Seller, Blog, 4th August 2005) For buyers, in particular, qualitative data from our study points to a considerable amount of what we would term ‘intelligent interpretation’ occurring, before some people are willing to purchase. With no way to segregate negative reviews, such investigation can be arduous, incurring a lot of time. The level of investigation, therefore, is often a factor of time and the date when transactions actually ended, due to item descriptions having an ‘expiry date’: “It kind of depends how old it is, because the links [item descriptions] disappear, then you can’t see… But yes, depends how much time I’ve got and how curious I’m getting. To see what was going on” (Focus Group, M3). The increasing introduction of automated feedback delivery systems, available with tools from third-party vendors, further complicates the issue of interpreting feedback especially if a ‘like-for-like’ feedback algorithm is adopted. Concerning such systems, as many buyers believe the seller should be first to leave feedback, it has been reported that some consider the use of automatic feedback software as a form of feedback extortion (Gibbs, n.d.). © 2006, University of Essex Page 77 of 198
  • 78. Typically, people are willing to invest more time scrutinising feedback when buying expensive items - low levels of feedback (even if positive) and any feedback scores under 100% have also led eBay buyers into doing their eBay ‘detective work’: AS: Yeah but you could sell stuff for like £2 and build up your feedback. AC: I’m often suspicious sometimes. I was looking to buy a camera recently, and there was quite an expensive camera for sale, and the guy only had two feedback marks against him, although they were both good, and when I looked at those, they were from people who only had one feedback mark each themselves. It looked to me like they were doing it to set it up. A: Do you investigate people’s feedback then? If they’ve sold other things. AC: If they haven’t got a 100%, I go and look at the negatives and see what people have been saying. And see what kind of arguments have been going on, who said what to whom. (Focus group 2M) eBay buyers, in particular, often go to great pains to assess potential sellers, going back through whatever links are still available from the feedback system. They look to see if the seller has sold similar items in the past, and whether these have been well-received, particularly for high value items: I think sometimes, if you’re buying something from somebody that maybe is a bit expensive, it’s sometimes… I like to look back to see if they sold similar things. Um, do you know what I mean, so that you can see if they’ve got a history of selling like watches or pens or something, and they’ve got satisfied customers from selling them, so, sometimes that’s how I use the feedback think in that way. (Focus Group, M2) Such comments reveal that some eBay buyers “want to know the whole picture” (focus group 2E) before buying an item, and will often try and untangle disputes and arguments in order to judge who is telling the truth and determine where negatives are just retaliatory. Often this involves trying to uncover the rationality of the comments – which is often described in terms of revealing whether the buyer or seller is the ‘nutter’: M: I got this message today, and there’s this guy selling a boat and er, he’s sold a lot of stuff, you know, like pages of feedback. There were two bad ones, and they seemed to be [laughter] just nutters, in one, the seller was calling the buyer a nutter and the buyer was calling the seller… You know, who’s telling the truth? It’s really odd. J: You get some of these people who’ve got a couple of thousand, so they’re obviously dealers of some sort, but they’ve got kind of like two negative ones. © 2006, University of Essex Page 78 of 198
  • 79. M: Two negative, yeah. […] C: You can usually ascertain though, who’s, if you look at their general profile - if the person who’s left feedback’s only got one or two [negative] comments, then probably they’re not the nutter. (Focus group 2M) However, intelligent interpretation is not an easy task, not just from the point of view of leafing through potentially pages of feedback to access negative reviews. Indeed, even the content of the feedback comments may not be reliable, with many comments reporting a ‘glowing’ transaction from a ‘fabulous seller’ when in fact the transaction may have been quite so-so and unremarkable: “I think they do over play it a bit sometimes. Over-enthusiastic. Because they want to look nice or good or something. A very basic, standard transaction for a 99p book, I get this glowing feedback. Calm down!” (Focus Group, M3). Those trying to intelligently interpret feedback, therefore, have the job of trying to ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’ - while many glowing reports overplay the experience, on occasion, such reports are totally justified, deserving their place in the member’s feedback profile. In such instances, in addition to supporting the trustworthiness of the buyer or seller concerned, glowing comments can act as a ‘feel good factor’ for the recipient, especially when they are new to eBay. For example, in our fieldwork, Alistair, who describes himself as ‘an ethical trader’, delights in feedback comments where buyers go beyond “the usual good feedback”. This seller’s delight is further supported by the receipt of e-mails to personally thank them for a particular item: […] I like to think of myself as an ethical trader. It makes me feel good when I sell something to somebody and I know they really like it. And I know… you get that feedback from some people. Sometimes they’ll send you an e-mail, and they don’t just put down the usual good feedback. People give you e-mails that say: ‘This was better than I expected it to be, or it was a really good description - I feel I’ve got exactly what I was looking for.’ And I like that, it makes me feel good… (Focus Group, E3) A comment from Valerie, our self-employed antique jewellery seller, further supports this sentiment: Um, the nice comments I get, I did have a very nice e-mail from a man I sold a ring to on Sunday. For them to go to the trouble of not just leaving you feedback, but actually contacting you personally, to say how pleased they are with something, that is one of the nicest things about it. © 2006, University of Essex Page 79 of 198
  • 80. (Valerie, antique jewellery seller) Further to the rosy outlook provided by the net feedback scores, the high level of glowing comments (displayed in feedback profiles) also support the Pollyanna effect, which was highlighted in the last section. Increasingly, confronted by a plethora of rosy reports, such as ‘A++++++ seller - Highly recommended’, our data reveal that many eBayers are beginning to take feedback comments with a ‘pinch of salt’; not regarding them as a ‘gospel’ reflection of the transaction being reported. F: I think with everyone, you read the feedback, you know that it’s not really going to be ‘super, super, super, exclamation mark’ - you know it doesn’t really mean that. You know that it just means adequate. R: So you think it’s over praised? C and F: Yeah. F: Definitely. C: It’s really funny. They’re all like ‘A +++++.’ What does it actually mean? (Focus Group, E2) As figure 17 reveals, some eBayers have even taken to reporting their boredom of such ‘uncreative’ comments on the Internet: Figure 17: The suggestion to rid feedback profiles of A+++++ ratings through use of ‘more creative’ comments (Asymptomatic, 2004). In response to the posting above, a comment was made that even if the “seller beat me to a bloody pulp” no-one would blink an eye, as long as the comment was associated with a positive feedback rating: © 2006, University of Essex Page 80 of 198
  • 81. “since it only really makes a difference if they’re positive or negative, leaving “a++++”-style comments is pretty pointless. I’ve actually taken to leaving cut-and-pasted comments like “Package arrived quickly and in expected condition”. I get too much stuff to spend a lot of time leaving specific, meaningful comments, and at least that might be of some use to the fraction of a percentage of people who actually read the comments. You could like positive comments like “Seller beat me to a bloody pulp”, and I’m sure people would continue to buy from them. I generally only read negative comments, so I would miss that kind of comment too” (Asymptomatic, 2004). With positive comments sometimes having a limited value, and buyers and sellers predominantly being concerned with negative reviews, the system definitely needs revision. For example, as expressed by another poster on Asymptomatic (2006): “[due to] the quality of feedback comments… eBay may as well ditch them and just have positive/negative/neutral totals. For the way I use them, I would be happy with just a total for positive/neutral and then a list of complaints. Seriously that’s all your interested in, before purchasing/selling to someone”. With many feedback reviews not being transactionally-based (or otherwise ‘meaningful’) our fieldwork revealed that many eBayers extend their investigation (of transaction histories) beyond the boundaries of the eBay system itself. Indeed, some buyers or sellers even go to lengths such as contacting a previous trading partner in order to get a more ‘first hand’ account that is not limited to 80 characters (as dictated by the comment field). With ‘first hand’ accounts not being visible to the eBayer under investigation, unlike the feedback comments (which are both public and attributable) - such investigations, it is hoped, could uncover the true nature of the transaction. As our fieldwork revealed, instances of deeper investigation tended to be associated with higher value item. For example, when interviewing a family who often transacted items such as motorbikes and motor homes, the need to understand the nature of ‘serious transactions’, rather than those just involving “ninety-nine pence items”, was highlighted: MT: Sometimes I contact people that other people have bought from that guy and ask them was it any good? What’s he like? And other questions like that. RE: So, when you want to buy something? MT: Yeah, I usually look back through the feedback that they had and if it’s a bit shaky, then I’ll maybe contact a few - half a dozen - of his previous sellers and, sort of, see what they say about him. © 2006, University of Essex Page 81 of 198
  • 82. AH: Yeah. Oh, you’ll e-mail the people? MT: Mmm. AH: Oh, right. So you do your investigation if it’s looking a bit... MT: A bit dodgy and the guy’s got a few black marks against him, then I will. Because a lot of people bump up their good marks by buying ninety-nine pence items, you know. […] you go, god he’s selling a car he must be good he’s got a hundred and he’s got a hundred percent, as well. Look, no bad marks or anything, you know. Then you go off and buy his car and it might be the dodgiest, ropiest thing going. You’ve always got to check. (Family Interview) Investigating a seller’s transaction history (through their feedback) can also extend beyond assessing trustworthiness, towards establishing an indication of the seller’s status in terms of their credibility for selling a particular category of item. Indeed, by looking at transaction histories, as well as noting their current auctions, buyers can establish whether the seller is a ‘Jack of all Trades’ or a seller committed to selling a certain type of item. If the latter, then additional information is inferred - buyers may consider that the seller is a more ‘knowledgeable’ and credible seller of ‘X’ than ‘Joe Bloggs’: I think you can find out about what kind of seller there are and that gives you some extra information. Because, I mean, if they’re ... I mean if they’re selling everything of a particular type of thing - like if you are buying, I don’t know, something like a Webcam, or something - and they’re selling all different types of computer bits, then you know that it’s perhaps some sort of, you know, professional seller, kind of thing. Whereas if they’re selling just random bits and pieces, then you know they are just, probably, Joe Bloggs. (Focus Group, M1) Feedback as a weak shadow of the future To conclude our look at eBay’s feedback forum, it is noteworthy that, although reputation systems afford a more systematic approach to information distribution than conventional marketplaces (Resnick and Zeckhauser, 2001), the value of reputation systems across the frontiers of cyberspace is limited. Specifically, one could argue that, with a limited reach, the overall effectiveness of the feedback is also limited. Robert Axelrod’s term ‘shadow of the future’ refers to the expectation that, as people consider each other’s past in future interactions, the future thereby casts a shadow back upon the present and this helps constrain behaviour in © 2006, University of Essex Page 82 of 198
  • 83. current situations (Simpson, 2004). Following Ba and Pavlou’s (2002) lead, it is thus possible to suggest that although reputation systems allow the future to cast a shadow, in reality, the future can only cast a shadow on one online arena at a time, rather than many all at once. Without a universal framework the portability of feedback is problematic. However, lack of a universal framework isn’t the whole story. attempted to boost its own auction marketplace by allowing the importation of feedback profiles from eBay, a practice which eBay strongly objected to - arguing that the Feedback Forum was its own asset and user ratings were proprietary (Resnick, et al., 2000). Ultimately, Amazon discontinued its rating-import service. Despite never reaching a phase of legal jurisdiction, this dispute does provide “evidence for the perceived value of eBay’s feedback mechanism” (Ba and Pavlou, 2002: 263), and eBay’s reluctance to “allow Johnny-come-lately competitor sites to benefit from a feature that was meant to be helpful to eBay” (Calkins, 2001). It is also noteworthy that, by disallowing exportation, eBay benefits by not having to rise to the demands of users suggesting more formalised procedures for addressing negative comments – with portability, negative ratings and comments would have a greater impact on one’s online existence (Calkins, 2001). Similarly, ensuring feedback is exclusive to eBay creates a sort of ‘lock-in’, which adds to eBay’s stickiness by ensuring that users with high feedback ratings, in particular, do not take their auction business to another auction site. Specifically, by disallowing the portability of feedback to competitor sites, sellers who have built a good online reputation with eBay will be less likely to go to a new site where they will need to build a reputation from scratch (Calkins, 2001). 4 Interface properties (& beyond) Despite its pitfalls, the Feedback Forum can be regarded to represent a valuable addition to eBay. Indeed, as Gross and Acquisti (2003: 4) argue, it would appear that eBay reputations manage being “biased just enough to inspire a general sense of trust and community, but not so much as to become totally devoid of meaning”. The Feedback Forum, however, is not the only factor supporting the levels of trustworthiness necessary for eBay’s survival. In this section, through a return to Egger’s framework, we will consider aspects relating to eBay’s Interface Properties, in terms of branding and usability, before extending our discussion to why eBay is a ‘fun’ place to trade, as many reports suggest. © 2006, University of Essex Page 83 of 198
  • 84. Although it is true to suggest that, in some respects, initial perceptions of eBay’s trustworthiness will be influenced by word of mouth reports and/or media stories; as previously discussed, first impressions of the interface will also strongly affect trust development and subsequent adoption. Thus, once ‘eBay-curious’ punters visit the site, or people stumble across the site after a Google search, in order to convert these visitors into potential customers it is crucial that the interface should attract consumers, encouraging and facilitating further investigation of the site’s offerings. Here, the appearance (look) and interactive style (feel) of eBay, as well as the functionality offered, operate to determine the users’ subjective response and attitude towards the system. 4.1 Branding “Branding is to the product or company what reputation is to a person” (Egger, 2003: 27). Essentially, extending beyond the ‘visual identity’ of the vendor (e.g. logo and colour schemes), branding refers to the ‘image’ of a company across all touch points between a customer and a company – both on- and off-line (Egger, 2003). Accordingly, as an online brand’s likeability has obvious consequences for the acceptability and subsequent adoption of its website, branding must go beyond ensuring that customers recognise a logo and/or trade name. In Spool’s (1996) terms, both ‘direct experience branding’ and ‘indirect messaging’ operate to create an emotional association (e.g. feeling of success, satisfaction or contentment) with the brand: • Direct-experience branding: where users attribute emotions directly, and their direct experience influences their feelings towards the brand. • Indirect messaging: as marketers cannot provide users with a direct experience, they rely on indirect messaging (e.g. logos and slogans) for their branding. “This form of branding needs repeated exposure — conventional advertising wisdom says that a message isn't effective until the customer has received it at least 10 times” (Spool, 1996). However, although the two work in tandem to some extent, direct experience can be so powerful that it can transcend the effects of indirect messaging - in the latter case the user is “passive and may not even be paying attention to the message” (Spool, 1996). This notion is especially poignant for sites such as eBay, which involve an interactive rather than a passive experience – the user’s direct experience becomes a very powerful branding technique. Indeed, while the seeds of eBay’s brand-awareness are often derived indirectly through advertising - for example,’s ‘Buy It. Sell It. Love It’ marketing campaign – this tends to prove less powerful than © 2006, University of Essex Page 84 of 198
  • 85. (first-hand) experience, as “knowing about a brand is certainly not as powerful as experiencing it” (Egger, 2003: 27). Relatedly, due to the increasing entanglement of usability and brand identity (Rudden, 2006), good usability proves essential for effective branding. When users visit an e-commerce site with the intent to make a purchase, Spool (1999) highlights that they are experiencing the site in a ‘pre-sales situation’. With respect to eBay, therefore, direct experience branding in terms of users finding interesting stuff quickly and easily, will support a positive opinion of the eBay brand. Indeed, if the site is usable and helps fulfil a user’s purpose for their visit, positive emotional feelings of success and achievement will be bestowed upon the user (Oliver, 2000). When users first visit eBay, the first thing that interacts with the site is their eyes, acting to form an initial assessment of the site through its visual appeal, which largely relates to the site’s graphic design and layout. As Pepperin (n.d.) notes “a first impression can be a capricious thing indeed, and a feeble e-commerce aura can deflect potential visitors from your site in droves”. Given Fogg et al’s (2002: 58) statement that “looking good is often interpreted as being good – and being credible”, even where websites are considered, the more visually appealing the site the better, provided that the ‘look’ doesn’t significantly26 impede the ‘feel’ (i.e. aesthetic design must not be allowed to override usability). Regarding this concern, eBay’s Tom Walter comments that, while ‘looking good’ is important, nothing must get in the way of eBay’s ultimate goal, which is mediating cash transactions: “My role is to make the site look good without getting in the way of the cash transactions – which is ultimately what eBay is about. In my view, although there are a lot of sites that are more elegantly designed than eBay, there are a greater number of such sites that aren’t around anymore. The site has grown both organically and exponentially. The visual design was never thought out from first principles – we were more or less making it up as we went along, working as fast and as furious as possible! Actually, there are many places where eBay looks the same as it did when it 26 Arguably, a certain degree of impediment can be tolerated, given the argument that attractive things are perceived to work better (Kurosu and Kashimura, 1995). Indeed, as Norman (2004: 19) states, “attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively ... making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter”. Moreover, this argument extends to the suggestion that happy people are more tolerant of minor difficulties. © 2006, University of Essex Page 85 of 198
  • 86. launched way back in 1995 – and there’s a good reason for that: it works” (Walter cited in Braun et al, 2002: 109). As the typical “front door’ for users, providing “top-level navigation for information that's inside the site” (Nielsen, 2003), a user’s first impression of any website will largely be forged in reaction to the homepage (Egger, 2003; Kim et al., 2003), both in terms of its visual appeal and its ability to provide users with relevant information. “For a lot of people it will be the first - and maybe the only page they ever get to see” (Bonasource, n.d.). The design of the homepage is very important, needing to communicate the essence of the company’s business while providing immediate access to key areas of the site, including links to company information and policies. Concerning its actual visual design, as Kim and Moon’s (1998) seminal ‘emotional usability’ study revealed, to produce a sense of attraction and expertness, which encourages increased feelings of trustworthiness, the presentation needs to adhere to a good visual quality, while ensuring that the limited screen real estate has been optimally used, reflecting priorities. In these terms, while eBay’s homepage provides direct access to a good array of vital information and search facilities, arguably, the display does appear somewhat busy, even though some conceptual grouping of links/items is achieved. Moreover, the authors would argue that the layout is not optimal in terms of the amount of real estate devoted to different sections and the actual organisation of the sections and links displayed. At this time, however, without further empirical exploration, concrete recommendations for re-design cannot be provided. With its familiar ‘eBay colours’, eBay’s homepage contains dynamic adverts and a wealth of shortcut links, not all of which will be utilised or even acknowledged by the majority of visitors – see Appendix 4 for an example homepage. On the homepage, both non-registered and registered visitors can immediately establish a search in one of three ways, without needing to access a dedicated search screen: using the site’s category links, using the search engine, or by clicking on ‘featured items’ displayed on the home screen. Registered users are also invited to ‘sign in’ (via the ‘sign in’ link or the ‘My eBay’ tab), in order to obtain a snapshot of their eBay activity – see figure 18. This resultant welcoming summary highlights suggested actions, for example, reminders to pay for items won or prompts to bid for watched items. Once signed in, however, a more exhaustive display of the members’ eBay activity can be displayed via ‘My eBay’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 86 of 198
  • 87. Figure 18: Once visitors have signed in, an ‘at a glance’ summary of their eBay activity is provided on the homepage. Concerning the ‘revisitability’ of eBay’s homepage during a session, once in session, the user’s journey may include infrequent visits back to the homepage, with searches typically conducted away from this space, especially if more complex search functionality is adopted. For new users, who may utilise only a limited amount of the functionality available, our data suggests that some may frequently return to the homepage in order to conduct their keyword searches, at least in the early stages of their eBay use: “I just use the keyword thing. I don’t know a lot of the functionality of the site to be honest - I just turn to the homepage, go to the search box and just type in whatever” (Focus Group, M4). When people consider eBay, often its distinctive logo is at the forefront of their minds. Designed by Tom Walters in mid-1997, the familiar eBay logo remains the same to this day, enlivening the visual appeal of the eBay site through its bright, primary colours, which sit in stark contrast to the site’s clean, white background. The colours presented in the logo (predominantly the yellow) are then used throughout the site to create a strong sense of brand (Braun et al., 2002). In an environment where individual sellers can impose their own brand image on their listings and © 2006, University of Essex Page 87 of 198
  • 88. About Me pages, the logo and colour scheme almost creates a ‘landscape of familiarity’, extending feelings of trustworthiness to those who sell through the site. Essentially, the overall ‘look and feel’ of eBay is met with mixed feelings. Indeed, while some people love it and consider eBay a most usable site, others are not impressed, highlighting that its usability is particularly lacking - e.g. as Lloyd (2003) reports, “I actually don't much like the eBay look and feel and often felt in the past that the usability of the site was not all that great”. However, love it or hate it, with its distinctive visuals eBay has been subject to people borrowing aspects of its visual identity to support perceptions of trustworthiness and/or to provide a sort of shorthand for their messages. For example, as an example of the latter, eBay’s brand image has even been reportedly cribbed for Religious promotion – see figure 19. With regards this parody of eBay's design elements, although views on were largely mixed, they mostly reflected the opinion that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (, 2005). Figure 19: eJesus - eBay look and feel? As posted on (2005). “I like it. It draws people in. It made me smile. It makes a point via metaphor that connects to the right side of the brain. It's downright memorable” (, 2005). However, it was BidBay’s alleged adoption of the eBay look and feel, including certain features such as a ‘My eBay-type’ facility and eBay’s colour scheme and logo, that resulted in eBay Inc. initiating a trademark infringement lawsuit again the rival auction site. The suit alleged that, through its imitation, BidBay intended to profit from the established reputation and goodwill enjoyed by eBay (OUT-LAW News, 2001). eBay was also concerned that cosmetic similarities between the web sites may lead to public confusion. Even, as offered by Jay Monahan (from © 2006, University of Essex Page 88 of 198
  • 89. eBay's associate general counsel), using the term ‘Bay’ in the name27 was an “egregious and an improper attempt to trade on eBay's solid reputation” (, 2002). As a result of the lawsuit, BidBay changed its name to Similarly, eBay also pressured (a site for trading Lego building-block toys) to change its name, with the result that the site changed its name to (Steiner, 2002). About Me Pages In terms of a more direct impression of those who sell on eBay, impressions will ultimately be formed as a result of the visual appearance of their item pages and, if available, their About Me page, where brand messages can be relayed. Concerning ‘About Me’ pages on eBay, eBay promote these as a means “to tell the world about yourself and your interests” (, n.d., r), suggesting that eBayers can use this space to: • Let the eBay community know who you are and build your reputation • Show off your fabulous finds • Display items you're selling • Describe your favourite hobby to attract like-minded buyers and sellers About Me pages may describe the seller's business. They may even contain URLs or links to the seller's individual web site. However, as eBay’s help guidance dictates, About Me pages must “not specifically promote off eBay sales or sales of items prohibited on eBay, nor may it contain links to commercial web sites where goods from multiple sellers are aggregated by a common search engine” (, n.d., s). As indexed by our study, however, many eBayers are not even aware of this facility: “I didn’t know they existed. I certainly wouldn’t put my stuff there. I think the goods are what matter” (Focus Group, M4). For those who did know of this facility, many respondents were skeptical about the value of seeing biographies of fellow eBayers: “You see, doesn’t interest me - I just want cheap stuff” (Focus Group, M4); “I look at feedback profiles, and positive and negative comments, but not the about me pages. I don’t see why I should really be interested” (Focus Group, M2); “No. Don't feel it's necessary. People can 27 “According to BidBay, which was set up as a rival site because it was felt that the eBay services were not user- friendly, its domain name was purchased by its present CEO George Tannous through an eBay auction” (OUT-LAW News, 2001). © 2006, University of Essex Page 89 of 198
  • 90. judge by my feedback. All else is irrelevant” (Patrick, radio collector). Also, contra eBay’s premise that About Me pages help publicise presence and build reputation, the value of visiting someone’s About Me page in order to assess their worth as a potential transaction partner was deemed somewhat limited by our respondents, given that About Me pages are self-penned. As the second of the comments below, from Ralph, one of our radio collectors, suggests, such personal advertisements often reveal inflated reports of one’s credibility, which jar with their feedback record: A: So, you’d look at their feedback to find out about them. M: Well you can trust their feedback because that’s actually what other people have said about them. Whereas, about me, they could just … it could mean anything. Yeah, they could say I’m the world’s best eBayer. What does that mean - they’ve written it? (Focus Group, M1) […] As to the about me pages, from those I have read, they seem to be mostly self aggrandisement or personal advertising, often at odds with the sellers feedback record. I have tried to find an example but have so far failed to do so. Up to now I am content to let my feedback record show my standing within the eBay community. (Ralph, radio collector) The value of About Me pages for assessing trustworthiness was cited by a number of our respondents. Largely, it was felt that the often frivolous nature of About Me pages provided much weaker support for trust decisions than feedback profiles or transaction histories: M: […] your feedback, which is the most important thing. And um, if you want to check someone out, look back at their history and see what they’ve been trading. You get an idea about what they’re buying anyway, the About Me’s not that important. AS: Because you don’t really like - when you buy something from a shop, you don’t want to know what their holidays are… (Focus Group, M3) Far from representing a means to convey a brand image, as eBay would hope, comments revealed that About Me page are often perused, purely as a source of amusement, on occasion being forwarded as links to friends: “I just think that they’re completely sad people [laughter]. Because I get them sent on to me - ‘Look at this person here,’ and you just think… I mean maybe there are some very nice people on there that are completely normal and it’s: ‘Hello, my name’s Fred and I like collecting blah, blah, blah but when they start saying [comic voice]: ‘This is my favourite picture, and my cat’s called such and such, © 2006, University of Essex Page 90 of 198
  • 91. and he died and I did a séance to talk to my cat.’ [Laughter]. I mean, I’m sorry” (Focus Group, M2). Many of the negative comments concerning About Me pages were not directed at the more ‘serious’ biography pages of sellers, particularly those who have eBay shops. Here, for those who mainly specialise in selling on eBay, especially those who additionally have a physical, offline shop, it was reported that About Me pages can engender a degree of confidence for potential bidders: J: I do look at About Me pages sometimes, I wouldn’t say every time. But it’s to do with some of the ideas that I’ve got - you know, you go on and you get some interesting things, register that, and I do have an About Me page. R: You do, I just remembered. J: And I do also have a shop version, mainly for trying to explore different opportunities and things like that. Don’t really use it at all. R: Why did you create an About Me page? J: Um, why did I do that, um, I don’t know really. I think it was just: ‘what does this do.’ I’ll put this is, and press go, and that’s about it really. No real reason. But um, one of the things I do like - if you’re, um, about to buy something from somebody whose like traded several thousand sort of um, sales against them, I do like the About Me page - a bit more information about ‘we are a shop, we are based in wherever.’ You know they do exist, you know, that gives you a little bit more confidence. I don’t know what that confidence is, but it gives you that confidence. (Focus Group, E3) For one our respondents, an antique jewellery seller called Valerie, the option to have an About Me pages was seen as a means to provide a ‘human face’; the ability to tell those she regularly trades with a bit more about herself and how she first became interested in antique jewellery. For Valerie, trading antique jewellery on eBay was just a hobby - a means to supplement her part-time ‘day job’. Through her About Me page, Valerie wanted to provide potential buyers with a ‘picture’ of who she was, as opposed to the typical pages from other traders, which merely present an example of feedback comments and a list of items for sale. Additionally, through her page, Valerie wanted to provide a more personal trading experience, advising of her willingness to source items if people had certain requests: …eBay made me a Power Seller, and I was most flattered, and I thought at least I’ve achieved that, therefore, um, I’ve had a few repeat buyers, I think I ought to let them know a bit about the person they’re buying from. So, I just decided to tell a bit about who I am, and what I do, and how I first got © 2006, University of Essex Page 91 of 198
  • 92. interested in antique jewellery, the fact that I was working part-time, so this was just a hobby so to speak. I mean, I haven’t been in a family jeweller’s business for years like a lot of them have, um, and I thought I really ought to let people know now, you know, who you’re actually buying from, as opposed to buying from a stranger, that nobody knows anything about. And if people can see who they’re buying from and the type of person I am, it might sort of, do you know what I mean, encourage people. A lot of sellers they do an About Me page, but all they’ve got is their great feedback and their items for sale, and they don’t actually say much about themselves. […] I am actually thinking of changing [my About Me page], just to say that I’m not working at [x] anymore … I wanted to offer something more personal. I had people come to me and say: ‘OK, I’m looking for an emerald and diamond ring, do you think you can get one for me?’ What I might say is: ‘if you’re looking for anything in particular, let me know and how much you’re willing to pay, and I’ll try and find it for you.’ I thought that might help the business. And, um, you know, it might attract some more business to let them know I’m willing to search for stuff for people. (Valerie, vintage jewellery seller) To negate the need for arduously long item descriptions, many sellers use their About Me pages to present their ‘terms and conditions’. The following comment from one of our focus groups, which was comprised entirely of students, reveals that, although their About Me page has a somewhat ‘jokey feel’, this space provides a means to present their postage policy, which allows their item descriptions to be less off-putting to the reader: KM: Did you come up with the terms and conditions yourself or did you just download them? PL: Well I looked at other peoples’. It’s only like, erm, it just says, erm, due to Royal Mail uselessness or due to… KM: Due to that programme. PL: You are now required to have recorded delivery on all… If you wish it to be sent otherwise then I will not be held responsible for refunding you if the item is lost in the post. It sets out my refund policy. KM: The Royal Mail must be laughing all the way to the bank. ALL: [laughs]. PL: It has like loads of information about, erm, bank transfers and like how to do them and stuff. And it obviously has just got my name and its got a little character from Lilo and Stitch, repeated. KM: Just it just sort of came out of experiences that you’ve had, kind of? PL: Yeah, And it just says, erm, I’m a University student, thanks for looking, bid and help me to get drinking, kind of thing. KM: Ok. Cool. © 2006, University of Essex Page 92 of 198
  • 93. PL: This is funding my drinking habit. And people notice. It’s more to be amusing but I do find I don’t want to list stuff on my description because it just looks… You open it [the item] up and it says terms and condition - it’s like that [gestures] that long and you think oh, I’m not reading that. (Focus Group, E2) Despite the suggested benefits of About Me pages, often, as our respondents indicated, About Me pages can be perceived as very costly in terms of time, and this can put people off: “I do not have an about me page, I do not have the time & I am not interested” (Christine, stamp collector questionnaire). This concern was also highlighted by Ian (radio collector): “No, I’ve never bothered with [About Me pages]. It’s a nice idea and I think I did have a quick look at it once and I thought, ‘You start it, you’ve then got to plug everything in,’ and it looked like it was going to take a while to do, so I never bothered with that”. 4.2 eBay & usability “Ease-of-use is perceived as a sign that the company understands, cares for and respects its customers” (Egger, 2001: 320). Essentially, the most successful technique to create a good user experience is to design for good usability. Indeed, in an e-commerce context, usability, defined as the system’s ease-of-use, is a powerful determinant of acceptance and adoption, as Davis’ Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) purports - usefulness and ease of use are both strong predictors of adoption (Davis, 1989). In terms of eBay, one can argue that each deficiency in usability may signal an obstacle to a visitor’s ability and willingness to engage. Indeed, even if comprehensive functionality is offered, if the site is too complex and usability is poor, and visitors cannot find what they are looking for, they may give up. Moreover, depending on the perceived severity of the problem experienced, the chance for repeat visits may also be blighted, especially for novice users. With eBay acting only as an intermediary, usability is also important for any e-buyer-seller interactions that occur ‘off-eBay’ (e.g. via micro-payment solutions such as Paypal (owned by eBay) or Worldpay) as such experiences, through association, will contribute to the overall eBay user experience, possibly reflecting back on the eBay brand. As aforementioned, the literature reveals mixed reports regards eBay’s usability. On closer inspection, many reports concerning eBay’s usability appear to highlight that the exponential © 2006, University of Essex Page 93 of 198
  • 94. growth of eBay, not just in terms of items offered but also the features it incorporates, may have affected its usability. Rhodes (2001) reports that, even as one’s experience of the site grows, the continued introduction of features may discourage perceptions of ‘total familiarity’, which, in turn, may act to impede user satisfaction: “It is unfortunate that eBay has gotten more and more complicated than when I had first joined in 1999. I have to say, was faster, more efficient, and was much easier to use back then. I've spent a lot of time on eBay and you would think that it would get easier and easier to use. However, because they keep adding features, it is actually getting more difficult to use. What a shame”(Rhodes, 2001) Undeniably, eBay has come a long way since its first days as AuctionWeb (Interactive Web Auction), where listings were advertised by Pierre Omidyar on a Web forum (see figure 20 and Appendix 3 for the whole posting). Worldwide, eBay now boasts over 50,000 categories and approximately 60 million listings at any one time - approximately 5 million listings being added per day (, n.d., g). alone is reported to host over 13,000 categories, with more than three million items for sale at any one time (, n.d., g). Figure 20: Great Oaks from little acorns grow? Or is it a case of a sprawling Oak with so many branches and leaves that only the bottom rung of its branches can be reached? © 2006, University of Essex Page 94 of 198
  • 95. With eBay hosting such a mammoth number of listings and providing a wealth of guidance on how to get started with eBay, how to keep safe, etc., one could argue that ‘while great oaks from little acorns grow’, in eBay’s case the resulting tree may have too many branches and leaves for it to be climbed with ease. Although, in our study, no comments were made regarding the relative usability of eBay since its inception, in general, participants tended to regard eBay as having good basic usability to the point where it was largely ‘taken-for-granted’ by users. However, certain gripes with the eBay system in a more holistic sense, were highlighted. Given that usability wasn’t an overt thread in our current research, and no empirical user testing was performed, rather than being an exhaustive account of eBay’s usability, this section will highlight a number of features pertinent to the usability (or otherwise) of eBay, based on both our user data and observation by the researchers. 4.2.1 Towards that ‘difficult first transaction’ & beyond Basically, for any website, not just eBay, ease of use concerns helping people know what they should do, how they should do it, and not standing in their way during any phase of their participation - doing so will impede the user experience and, accordingly, may prevent people from returning to the site. Thus, once ‘eBay-Curious’ punters have taken their first tentative ‘eBay steps’ by metamorphosing into ‘eBay-lurkers’, it is essential that they know how and where to get started with the site's primary features and, very importantly, that they are able to do so with minimal (or an acceptable) amount of cognitive effort. It can be assumed that only once this criterion has been met, and the benefits of eBay have been weighed up - to see if it is “worth the hassle” (Rachel, Focus Group, M4) - will an eBay-lurker transform again into a registered user: RC: Yeah, I think I spent quite a while looking for ridiculous things, and just seeing how much things are going for. To see if it was actually worth doing, if it was worth the hassle. R: The hassle of registering for it? RC: The registering, the tracking, you know, the looking at things and stuff. If it was only going to be like pounds cheaper than buying it conveniently or something then I wouldn’t. (Rachel, Focus Group, M4) Moreover, to fully exploit the serendipity afforded by eBay, initial registration must not be burdensome or intrusive (Calkins, 2001), as the interested party may be under time pressure to © 2006, University of Essex Page 95 of 198
  • 96. make their bid. Essentially, eBay must respect the nature of transitions, e.g. from ‘eBay-curious to lurker’, from ‘lurker to new registeree’, from ‘registered user to buyer or seller’, from ‘buyer to seller’ (or vice versa). As frequently reported, the vast majority of eBayers tend to start out as bidders, rather than sellers. Accordingly, as eBay relies on the fees from sellers, encouraging and facilitating the transition from ‘buyer to seller’ is a particularly important facet of eBay’s growth. Again, even with selling, serendipity is important, and eBay must ensure that buyers can quickly and easily become sellers in order to, for example, exploit a ‘flurry of interest’ in ‘x’ or ‘y’. Concerning registration, while – contra expectation - our data revealed a relatively healthy split between those who registered as a matter of course and those who registered to bid on a specific item (“… I browsed the site before registering. I only registered once I found something I wanted to buy” - Ralph, radio collector), the registration process wasn’t investigated in any further detail, in either our fieldwork or through empirical review. Catering for all Whether an eBay-lurker or a registered user, as Egger (2003) states, “the ease and the efficiency with which [users] can access relevant information can affect how much they feel in control of the site” (Egger, 2001). Here, to allow users to feel in control during their sessions, the eBay system needs to be flexible enough to cater for the needs of both novice and experienced users. Regarding this concern, one could argue that eBay does support, reasonably well, a range of users such as ‘lurkers’, and buyers and sellers who span the continuum from ‘newbie’ to ‘expert’ users, at least in terms of basic participation. With the extreme number of navigational features and products eBay offers, allowing first-time visitors or novice users (unregistered lurkers or newly registered members) to familiarise themselves with the facilities offered, or introducing new features to existing clientele (both regulars and infrequent visitors), is vitally important. Here, even though it is preferable for sites to be so intuitive that help systems are not required, with sites as large and complex as eBay’s (where new features are regularly being introduced) the addition of a help facility proves to be a necessity. To optimise learnability and decrease the user’s mental workload, eBay does provide FAQs, various downloadable documents, and guided audio and feature tours relating to certain features – see figure 21. Moreover, a dedicated Help section is provided, accessible from the top © 2006, University of Essex Page 96 of 198
  • 97. of any page, where interrogation is relatively flexible – e.g. users are allowed to textually enter a query or access information via the ‘A-Z Index’. Figure 21: A range of resources on designed to help users ‘get stared’ with the site (, n.d., pp). As stated by Jakob Nielson (1993: 20), the Internet usability Guru, “any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task … and not be too large”. Moreover, all information, offerings and resources need to organised in a manner relevant to the end user, pandering to ‘real-world conventions’, with information organised according to a logical and natural order and, also, the adoption of consistent classification schemes and terminology that speaks the users' language - i.e. words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user (Nielson, n.d.). The promise offered by eBay’s wealth of guidance information, however, is blighted by the information being unmanageable in terms of volume, potential difficulties in terms of navigation, overlaps in content and, on occasion, conflicting and/or inaccurate information (including inconsistencies in terms of terminology). For users who have overcome barriers to entry, in terms of registration or moving towards buying or selling, even opportunities to gain a more face-to-face audience with eBay is hindered by navigational issues in the information space. Indeed, although the opportunity exists for sellers, in particular, to attend ‘eBay University’ for ‘Beyond the Basics’ and two streams of ‘Top Seller University’ (Business Skills and Advanced eBay streams), finding details of such sessions is © 2006, University of Essex Page 97 of 198
  • 98. relatively difficult. Firstly, such information is not locatable via ‘Search Help’ or the ‘A-Z Help Index’ – see figure 22. Secondly, although a link to ‘eBay University’ can be discovered in eBay’s site map, its positioning is questionable, given that there are two separate ‘Educational’ sections under Community-related links and Help links, respectively – see figure 23. Figure 22: Details about eBay University cannot be found using either ‘Search Help’ or the ‘A-Z Help Index’ - eBay University is not listed amongst any of the eBay links (under ‘E’) or even under ‘U’ for University. © 2006, University of Essex Page 98 of 198
  • 99. Figure 23: Entries on the site map. Note - ‘Education’ doesn’t directly appear under the Community heading, as above. The depiction is merely illustrative of its categorization under community and the confusion afforded by having two separate ‘education-related’ sections (see Appendix 5 for a spatially true depiction). For Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (2001) in their book Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, one of their principle concerns about eBay’s usability is the complexity and type of options for navigation. Presenting a slightly opposing perspective, Holzschlag (2004) argues that navigational clutter may be less important for eBayers than having a range of options. Indeed, access to functionality and information from different entrance points, presented via the user interface, can benefit a diverse user base through the flexibility afforded. However, while this may hold an element of truth for some users who have ‘taken the plunge’, registered and been involved in subsequent transactions, for lurkers, in particular, who have little direct experience of eBay, the sheer wealth of information on the site may be complex to navigate. Moreover, some new visitors may feel they have to ‘leaf through’ a vast array of pages and digest a mammoth amount of information before they are ready to become a registered (and safe) eBay user – see figure 24. However, due to eBay’s changing repertoire of features, confusion may extend beyond the novice user, towards those with more mature memberships. Indeed, such users may quickly tire of complexity, especially those who may be seeking timely and accurate auction-related information – e.g. help concerning a shortly ending auction. © 2006, University of Essex Page 99 of 198
  • 100. Figure 24: A selection of the graphic navigation and links used to access pertinent information on eBay. 4.2.2 Supporting ‘browsing’ & ‘searching’ Central to this notion of usability in e-commerce contexts, are two important concepts, namely ease of navigation and search (Nah and Davis, 2002). Essentially, to be effective, e-commerce interfaces need to be almost as rich and flexible as the physical environments they replace (i.e. offline stores), and able to accommodate different approaches to the user’s task. As Quesenbery (2001) states, in physical bricks and mortar stores “the store environment presents an interface rich enough to serve many needs”. In comparison to this rich, tactile environment, “online interfaces can have difficulty replicating the rapidity and ease of browsing in a well-designed physical space because of the limited resolution and depth of the computer interface” (Quesenbery, 2001). However, despite potential problems, arguably, as Alba et al. (1997) have suggested, the interactive nature of the Internet undeniably offers unparalleled opportunities to increase the efficiency of shopping behaviour by improving the availability of product information, enabling direct multi-attribute comparisons, and reducing buyer search costs. In a bid to represent a viable alternative to offline equivalents, eBay is required to satisfy the needs of a huge range of users with disparate motivations for visiting the site. Firstly, there’s a diverse seller constituent, who come to eBay as an intermediary to sell their wares. Next, there are potential bidders, who visit eBay in one of two distinct modes, perhaps flitting between the two in a single session: as ‘browsers’ and ‘searchers’. Indeed, while some eBayers (searchers) © 2006, University of Essex Page 100 of 198
  • 101. have a well-formed picture of the item they are looking for, many eBayers are ‘browsers’ who come to the site as ‘explorers’, without a clearly defined goal - except to peruse the items available. It is here, while in this second mode, that eBay visitors can experience the pleasures associated with serendipitous discovery. Concerning potential bidders, eBay need to support both goal-directed and browsing behaviour as a means of facilitating a pleasurable flow experience. eBay themselves adopt the distinction between browsers and searchers, in their guidance information for new visitors. In one of eBay’s help pages, entitled ‘Buying - Getting Started’, (Step 2: Find items), they suggest that categories are good for browsing and keywords for searching – see figure 25. This distinction is also made in eBay’s ‘Tutorial: How do I buy?’. However, the guidance provided here is confusing, as the ‘set-by-step’ pictorial information depicts an eBay page with navigational options on the top menu - see 26 - which do not reflect the current practice (figure 27), as there is no ‘Browse’ option. Figure 25: Advice on ‘browsing’ and ‘searching’ in ‘Buying – Getting Started’ (, n.d., t) © 2006, University of Essex Page 101 of 198
  • 102. Figure 26: Accompanying the textual description is a screen capture depicting navigational elements for searching and browsing (expanded in the lower part of this figure). A ‘Browse’ button is shown. However, in reality, this navigation option doesn’t exist (, n.d., u). Figure 27: The current options, which appear in the top navigation bar. To support the search and browsing activities of its diverse user base, eBay provides a range of search options and commands that let users narrow their search in a variety of ways - from standard search options (general categories or keyword searches), to more advanced searches defined by, for example, item number, country, or seller. Further still, expanded search capabilities are offered to eBayers who use the eBay Toolbar - e.g. most recent searches and Web text searches. Users can even browse by theme or charity items. Additionally, although not generally adopted by a large number of users, the facility to search for items by postcode and then sort results by distance, allows buyers to access only sellers in their region. Accordingly, as © 2006, University of Essex Page 102 of 198
  • 103. eBay states, this can help buyers “avoid high postage costs, especially if [they are] buying an item that is large or fragile” (, n.d., v). “Have an adventure exploring eBay's listings” (, n.d., w) Essentially, providing users with the ability to search in complex ways means that, potentially, users can have a ‘personalised journey’ through the vast array of items on eBay, looking for items of relevance to them, perhaps even encountering items they didn’t know they ‘needed’ via, for example, browsing a seller’s complete list of items for sale. eBay also extends this ‘personalised journey’ to users who may have visual difficulties, by allowing users to change the text size in their web-browser or, if users use screen-reading text to speech software (e.g. Jaws), a text-only homepage can be presented (, n.d., x). As the following two exerts drawn from our fieldwork highlight, even in terms of searching on eBay, most definitely, ‘one size does not fit all’: I like all the categories on it - the fact that that it’s a really powerful search engine that you can type anything in and it will, because it forces people to list in a sensible manner, you can usually find what you’re looking for. So that’s good about it. (Focus Group, M2) AC: I don’t bother with the categories, it doesn’t seem necessary. Just type what you want in the main box and off you go. AS: I think you do know before hand, especially with eBay, because you’re asking specific things, it’s quite good for just text based searches. (Focus Group, M3) Arguably, the breadth of the search options available on eBay, coupled with the multitude of guidance information, may make the performance of more advanced searches daunting for some users – not just novice users but also seasoned eBayers. Accordingly, this may dictate that users make limited use of the facilities available. However, this said, one cannot deny the power of eBay’s basic search facilities as, even for first-time visitors, performing a basic search is relatively easy, especially given the high visibility of input fields for keyword searches (on the homepage and beyond). Indeed, rather than needing to continually return to the homepage or a dedicated search screen (via a search link), keyword search facilities are presented in a consistent location on each page (figure 28), enabling users to easily perform a search any time they need to, and © 2006, University of Essex Page 103 of 198
  • 104. from any page. To maximize the user’s search and facilitate usability, keyword searches are not case-sensitive - so whether enquirers use capital letters or not, the results retrieved will be the same. Moreover, as search input fields are wide enough to accommodate a typical query, the query does not have to scroll, which would diminish usability. As figures 28 and 29 show, users have the option to search just the item’s title or both titles and descriptions. Users can then focus on results most relevant to them by accessing ‘Advanced Search’ options, in order to expand or limit their search. However, contra expectation, a minimal click-stream to this advanced search facility is not provided - selection of the ‘Advanced Search’ link (shown in figure 28) takes the user to another ‘Basic Search’ screen (presented in figure 29) where they need to select another ‘Advanced Search’ link before accessing advance options. Figure 28: Basic search boxes, with the option to search titles and descriptions (on the left) or linked access to advanced search features (top right). Figure 29: Despite selecting ‘Advanced Search’ the user is taken to a screen presenting basic search options - the only difference is a means to search for ‘completed listings only’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 104 of 198
  • 105. For users who wish to perform specific searches within a given category, eBay offers a ‘product finder’ on the left-hand side of the search results, which provides a set of controls relating to the category in question. Such controls can be used individually or in combination, to narrow one’s search, as figure 30 shows. This facility is particularly useful given that, on occasion, sellers omit – for example - the brand or even the size of their offering in the item title. Figure 30: The Product Finder feature, which is presented to the left of the search results, allows users to narrow down their search using controls related to a given category. Proving further flexibility in terms of locating the desired items, eBay’s new ‘Want It Now’ feature (see figure 31), allows buyers to post requests for items they want, and sellers to find buyers for their items. Moreover, as eBay promotes, for sellers this feature’s also a great way to glean an understanding of the types of items currently in demand. The ‘Want it Now’ feature is a relatively new addition to eBay, which post-dates our interviews and focus groups. However, anecdotal and observational evidence suggests that this feature is a good addition – albeit one that needs a critical mass in order to achieve its true potential. © 2006, University of Essex Page 105 of 198
  • 106. Figure 31: The ‘Want-It-Now’ homepage (, n.d., y). Although, through introducing this feature, eBay’s intention was that ‘Want Ads’ are restricted to this area of the site, such postings are still seen in the auction section, typically using terms such as ‘wanted’ and ‘do not bid’ in the item heading – see figure 32. All such listings, which eBay refers to as a “describing a desire to buy or trade items”, breach eBay’s listing policy, as “the purpose of the listing page is to describe the item for sale and not to trade for or look for other items” (, n.d., z). Figure 32: A listing that violates eBay’s listing Policy due to its intention to procure a desire item via an item listing – all such ads should be restricted to eBay’s new Want It Now section. © 2006, University of Essex Page 106 of 198
  • 107. Although traditional practices such as bartering are not permitted on eBay, the recent addition of a ‘Best Offer’ option allows buyers to submit an offer to the seller, who then has 48 hours to accept or decline the offer. Essentially, this feature provides a solution to ‘unmet haggling needs’. As such, it is a most welcome feature, the flexibility of which is especially useful if sellers are unsure how to price a given item. Regardless of the search strategy adopted, given the potential for human error (misspellings or typos), eBay’s search system is ‘smart’ in that it provides a certain degree of error tolerance. Indeed, as eBay’s help information declares (see figure 33), eBay will expand the user’s search to include plural and/or an alternative spelling of their search word(s) such as US spellings (e.g. color and colour). Figure 33: Excerpt from’s guidance on ‘Search Commands’ (, n.d., aa). Obviously, eBay’s tolerance of geographically localised spelling such as ‘color’ or ‘colour’, mentioned above, facilitates a more positive experience when searching for items. However, when accessing guidance information, eBay’s occasional reliance on American spellings, even when accessing information through, can arguably create a negative impression. Here, when confronted with American spellings such as those presented in figures 34, below, users may either become confused (especially by the term ‘check’), think eBay cannot spell, or feel somewhat annoyed that eBay haven’t taken time to personalise guidance for their UK audience. © 2006, University of Essex Page 107 of 198
  • 108. Figure 34: Excerpts from’s Help guidance showing instances of American spellings (, n.d., bb & cc). Obviously, the accuracy of guidance information on eBay, will affect the user’s experience - all guidance data must be correct and up to date, for a positive user experience to ensue. The following excerpt from eBay’s Help system, which sits in conflict to the guidance offered in figure 33, reveals that guidance accuracy is not guaranteed. Specifically, in figure 35, the user is advised that enquirers will retrieve different lists of items when they search for plural terms. Using the search term specified in the guidance (i.e. ‘diamond rings’), however, the authors reveal that this information is incorrect, as figures 36 shows – both plural entries and non-plural entries are retrieved. Figure 35: Help guidance erroneously stating that users will retrieve different results from plural and non-plural searches (, n.d., bb). © 2006, University of Essex Page 108 of 198
  • 109. Figure 36: Contrary to the guidance in figure 35, searching for ‘diamond rings’ retrieves both plural entries as well as entries where the non-plural term (i.e. ‘diamond ring’) is adopted. The effects of human error are minimised by the provision of ‘related searches’ links – see figure 37. These links reflect common misspellings, mapping frequently-misspelled terms to accurate product keywords. For example, as can be seen in the figure, if the user erroneously enters ‘dr martin’, eBay will highlight related searches which include the correct spelling of this brand name as well as alternative, related search phrases. In this way, the list of items retrieved is not automatically made more daunting by automatically including misspelled and related items, alongside items adopting the correct spelling. Worthy of note, as an example of the complexity of eBay’s Help system, is that, although a brief ‘related searches’ entry exists (found during a previous browse of the help facility), this information proves impossible to relocate, given the sheer wealth of guidance about ‘eBay searches’, which often overlaps, and because ‘related searches’ does not appear in eBay’s A-Z Help index. Figure 37: Following a user search, if appropriate, eBay present links to a number of ‘related searches’, such as common misspellings or correct spellings of the search term in question. © 2006, University of Essex Page 109 of 198
  • 110. In their E-Commerce Search Report, which analyses the search engines and search results of 25 popular e-commerce sites, 37signals (2003: 20) offer that, although “the diverse product mix on eBay could have been a double-edged sword”, overwhelming users with only tangentially-related results, eBay appears to deftly return useful matches 100% of the time. In terms of handing ‘mixed specification’ searches it was suggested that, while not perfect, this provision was also commendable. 37signals’s report also highlights the value of being able to sort and filter large results lists according to criteria such as price, listing date, auction ending time, and condition, etc. - see figure 38. Concerning this, reflecting a sensible arrangement, the default is for items to be presented according to end date, with those items ending soonest at the top of the list. Figure 38: eBay’s ‘Sort by’ options allow users to rearrange the information in their search results, so that items matching, for example, a preference for new items or those where PayPal is accepted, are presented first. Regards this ‘sort by’ feature, while this allows users to specify that ‘new items’ appear at the top of their search results, for some categories of item sold on eBay, potential bidders may be interested to limit their viewing to listings with warranties. eBay encourages sellers to “note if the item has a valid warranty that can be passed on to the buyer” in their auction listing (, n.d., dd). However, to facilitate a search for such items, no filter is provided or, at least, no mechanism can be found. Even in the Advanced Search options there is no checkbox to search accordingly to warranty status. Recently, a banner appeared on the eBay site, which seemingly offered the opportunity to ‘Shop for Items With Warranty’ (see figure 39). Sadly, however, despite the ‘promise’ inherent in this banner, no related guidance can be found on eBay’s Help pages. © 2006, University of Essex Page 110 of 198
  • 111. Figure 39: Advertising banner, which appeared on circa December 2005. Using the tab feature shown previously in figure 237, users can peruse items according to whether they are buy-it-now listings or general auction items. In our study, the ability to single out buy-it-now auctions was highlighted by Patrick, in one of our focus groups, as a feature he particularly valued, given his frustrations with a competitor site, eBid: PL: I think it’s laid out better than other sites - like it’s so simple. I was on eBid the other day and it was really hard to find anything. It is actually better to go through and find out. And they don’t differentiate between buy-it-now and auctions, so you have to sort of click on the items and find out what it is. AH: Is this eBid? PL: Yeah. It’s a real ... [on eBid] it does take a lot of effort to find what you want. I mean, that’s my biggest gripe. (Focus Group, E2) eBay also provides the flexibility to search for items that have already ended; a feature that allows users to gauge, for example, how frequently an item appears and/or the sort of prices such items attract. As such, this feature has value for both buyer and seller communities. Once lists of retrieved items are loaded, search costs can be minimised by an initial perusal of both the item titles and – where sellers have paid for a ‘gallery picture’ – thumbnail images of the auction items, which link to the item pages. Particularly where multiple pages are retrieved, gallery pictures can secure the attention of visitors, thus increasing the probability that the full item description is loaded and viewed. Concerning leafing between different pages of the search results, while users have the option of selecting hyperlinks with either textual or numeric identifiers (i.e. previous/next or 1,2,3…) or, if the specific page is known, the user can enter the page number in the ‘Go to page’ input field – see figure 40. However, to facilitate navigability between pages, eBay do not follow best practice by allowing users to access different pages from © 2006, University of Essex Page 111 of 198
  • 112. both the top and the bottom of the screen. Rather, the interface is only provided on the bottom of each page. Accordingly, users who’ve returned to the top of the search list, are required to scroll to the bottom of the screen in order to load a different page, which takes additional time. As an aside, but related to accessing the search list, is the feature presented in figure 41, which returns the user directly to their search list after loading a selected item (‘back to list of items’ link). Here, while this link provides a useful function, which removes the need to ‘browser back’, this link is arguably lost in the ‘crush’ of links vying for attention. Indeed, as indexed by the experience of the authors and several acquaintances - all of whom have been fervent members since 2000 – without awareness of this link, ‘browser back’ was used, and may continue to be adopted as an entrenched behaviour. While this practice typically doesn’t incur any penalties (both the dedicated link and ‘browser back’ provide ‘one-step’ access), after adding items to one’s Watch List, such users need to perform this operation twice (i.e. browser back, browser back). Figure 40: To move between different pages of the search results, users have a number of navigation options - i.e. previous/next or 1,2,3… or, if the specific page is known, the user can enter the page number in the ‘Go to page’ input field. Notable, however, is that these options only appear at the bottom of the results list – they are not mirrored at the top of the list, as best practice would recommend. © 2006, University of Essex Page 112 of 198
  • 113. Figure 41: The ‘back to list of items’ link, which appears above the item viewed. Experience reveals that this link may not be seen (and adopted) by a significant number of users, even those with mature levels of eBay experience. Nielsen’s (2001b) comments that the “first results page is golden”, given that some “users almost never look beyond the second page of search results”. Therefore, it is essential that search results are prioritised in a way that is useful and meaningful to users, so that the most important hits appear on the first page. Even if users have done all they can to get that ‘golden first page’, by filtering according to relevant criteria such as – for example - condition, the acceptance of Paypal and whether the auction has a ‘Buy It Now’ purchase option, the resulting list of items may still be too large to perform a adequate comparison of the items retrieved. Accordingly, to facilitate comparison shopping, eBay provide the facility to filter similar products in a comparison arrangement, side by side. Although this represents a value filtering feature, the relative adoption of this feature is unclear – its use was not reported in our study. Guidance information related to this feature, however, appears to be inconsistent, both in terms of the specific details and the depth of the information given – see figures 42 and 43 (figure 42 is provided to reveal the amount of content only, rather than to act as an information source). Looking at these figures, while figure 42 shows a page entitled ‘Comparing Items’, which provides guidance concerning what can be compared (e.g. time left, bids, price, return policies), how to select items for comparison, how to manage compared items, etc.; figure 43 shows another help page, this time titled ‘Comparison Shopping’, which merely acts to highlight the existence of this feature without linking to the more detailed information presented in figure 42. This type of redundancy is unnecessary and, given the informational inconsistency regarding the number of items one can adopt in a comparison view (25 or 50 – see the individual figure legends), it may act to confuse users and deplete user satisfaction. Moreover, if ‘comparing items’ is entered as a search query, the more detailed page (actually entitled ‘Comparing Items’) is only suggested as the fifth entry in the retrieved list, after the limited ‘Comparison Shopping’ page and even one concerning © 2006, University of Essex Page 113 of 198
  • 114. ‘keyword spamming’ – see figure 44. Arguably, adoption of this feature will not be optimized, if users cannot easily access informative and accurate guidance information. Figure 42: Using eBay’s Comparison feature, this eBay guidance indicates that users “can select up to 25 items to compare at any one time” (, n.d., ee). Figure 43: Using eBay’s Comparison feature, this eBay guidance indicates that users can “view as many as 50 items side-by-side” (, n.d., ff). © 2006, University of Essex Page 114 of 198
  • 115. Figure 44: When ‘comparing items’ is entered as a search query, the more detailed page (actually entitled ‘Comparing Items’ – see figure 42),) is only suggested as the fifth entry in the retrieved list, after the limited ‘Comparison Shopping’ page (shown in figure 43), and even one concerning ‘keyword spamming’. The ability to customise one’s results page is also a possibility, so that users can view only the information they want to see, in the order and format in which they want to see it – e.g. hide columns or the comparison tick boxes, or display the feedback information of the seller under the item title for information (for more information see, n.d., gg). Overall, not just in terms of this customisation feature, the sheer wealth of options eBay offer to display, filter, customise, compare, and otherwise ‘slice the pie’ is immense. Although, potentially, this arrangement allows flexibility, in reality, the sheer diversity of options can be somewhat confusing, especially given that revisions and new options are regularly introduced without consistent help information and/or adequate cross referring between guidance sources. In summary, becoming familiar with the full gamut of options available on eBay, and knowing exactly what you can do, and when, can be ‘mind-boggling’, which may have a greater impact on the user experience than the potential flexibility afforded by the plethora of features. © 2006, University of Essex Page 115 of 198
  • 116. 4.2.3 Example user scenario: accessing eBay’s Safety Centre As aforementioned, to satisfy a diverse user base, eBay must provide navigation support in different ways. The current implementation, however, doesn’t provide adequate scope, in terms of flexibility or consistency. Accordingly, as our site observation reveals, examples attesting to navigational problems on eBay, are plentiful. Adopting the scenario of a user locating eBay’s ‘Safety Centre’, the following section highlights potential usability pitfalls faced by users navigating the problem space. Appendix 6 presents the welcome page of the Safety Centre, which users may have previously accessed through – for example - either exploration or through links such as that depicted in figure 45. Additional links for the Safety Centre can be found at the bottom of the homepage, in the ‘Related Links’ box in the Help section (see figure 46), or through a user’s ‘My eBay’ page. Figure 45: Link to the Safety Centre – this banner appears to be occasionally presented on the site, sometimes on the homepage, on occasion, elsewhere. The scenario assumes a user who has missed such textual links to eBay’s Safety Centre, and who may reasonably expect to access this area through a query search in Help. Typing ‘Safety Centre’ © 2006, University of Essex Page 116 of 198
  • 117. in the ‘Search Help’ input field retrieves six possible matches (see figure 47, where the first 2 are displayed). If the user selects the first of these, entitled ‘Customer Support/Safety Centre’, the page shown in figure 48 is loaded, where no link to the Safety Centre (or any of its related subsections) is provided. Moreover, as figure 46 reveals, the actual link to the Safety Centre, previously presented in ‘Related Links’, disappears – surprising, given how essentially ‘related’ this link is. Figure 46: The Help page with the easily missed ‘Safety Centre’ link circled in red (, n.d., hh). Figure 47: Six results are retrieved it Safety Centre is entered as a query - none of the retrieved links actually link to the Safety Centre’s welcome page. Also, note that the Safety Centre link disappears from the ‘Related Links’ box – see circled region. © 2006, University of Essex Page 117 of 198
  • 118. Figure 48: The page loaded when the first retrieved link (Customer Support/Safety Centre) is selected (, n.d., ii). Note, no link to the Safety Centre is presented on this page, which is surprising, especially given the page’s title. The previously missing Safety Centre link has been re-established on the left, however. Figure 49: In eBay’s A-Z Help Index no entry for the ‘Safety Centre’ is provided. The entry entitled ‘Safe Trading’ retrieves the page presented in figure 50, which doesn’t even mention the term ‘Safe Trading’, as users might expect. If non-deterred by such navigational flaws, users may then attempt to use the Help A-Z in their quest for the Safety Centre. Again, however, this action fails, as figure 49 indicates – no entry for the Safety Centre is presented, which discords with expectation. Moreover, if users select the first entry from the resultant list, which is ‘Safe Trading’, the page accessed (see figure 50) doesn’t © 2006, University of Essex Page 118 of 198
  • 119. even mention the term ‘Safe Trading’, as the link would imply. Indeed, the page concerns purchase protection programmes, detailing how to proceed should transaction problems occur, rather than providing guidance on how to trade safely, as users might imagine. Moreover, this page doesn’t even present a link to a ‘Safe Trading Overview’, even though the site hosts such a page which can be accessed by entering ‘safe trading’ as a query in ‘Search Help’ - see figure 51. Thus, in summary, it is noteworthy that the ‘Safe Trading’ link in eBay’s Help A-Z and the page retrieved when ‘Safe Trading’ is entered as a Help query, do not access the same page, which discords with expectation. The Safe Trading Overview page, however, does present a link to the Safety Centre, although this link is only vaguely signalled by the ‘stay safe’ hyperlink depicted in figure 52. Figure 50: Contrary to expectation, the ‘Safe Trading’ link (previously presented in figure 49) doesn’t even mention the term ‘Safe Trading’, and no link to the ‘Safe Trading Overview’ page (see figure 51) is presented (, n.d., jj). © 2006, University of Essex Page 119 of 198
  • 120. Figure 51: eBay’s Safe Trading Overview page (, n.d., kk). Figure 52: As the 6th entry on the ‘Safe Trading Overview’ page, the link to the Safety Centre is ‘disguised’ by the hyperlink shown (, n.d., kk). To feed user expectations, a more explicit link should have been provided. If links to the Safety Centre still elude users and they haven’t actually given up, then they may return to the homepage. Here, the link presented in figure 53 is highly visible. Indeed, given the predominant position of this link relative to the actual Safety Centre link at the bottom of the homepage, users may select this link expecting to access the Safety Centre’s welcome screen. However, despite the promise offered by the term ‘Safety Centre’ (used for the hyperlink), the resulting page actually represents a sub-ordinate page of the Safety Centre, entitled ‘Get Safe Online’ (see figure 54). Moreover, no easily identifiable route back to the Safety Centre’s welcome page, as the super-ordinate, is presented - the relevant link is actually termed ‘Safety Overview’ (circled in figure 54). Arguably, users could be forgiven for assuming that this link would load the ‘Safe Trading Overview’ page, previously presented in figure 51, given the terminology adopted. © 2006, University of Essex Page 120 of 198
  • 121. Figure 53: Link on the homepage entitled ‘Safety Centre’, which presents a sub-ordinate section of the actual ‘Safety Centre’ section – ‘Get Safe Online’. Figure 54: The link to the Safety Centre’s welcome page is actually termed ‘Safety Overview’, which may discord with expectation and/or confuse users, given the existence of a separate ‘Safe Trading Overview’ page – see figure 51 (, n.d., ll). Essentially, the eBay site appears awash with ‘overviews’, overlapping content without sufficient cross-referencing, and pages with discordantly named hyperlinked paths, to name but a few usability flaws. All these issues add up, resulting in users potentially not achieving a clear idea of where they are, and where they can or need to go, in order to find the information they desire. However, if users wish to utilise eBay’s ‘basic package’ of features (e.g. keyword searches and category searches with a minimal amount of filtering), then this can be gained with minimal concern. The route of eBay’s problem appears to be its exponential growth, as highlighted previously. All additions to the site, in terms of both features and information, appear to be added with relatively little regard for the overall user experience. Accordingly, it can be argued that features may not gain the level of utilisation they deserve – even basic features such as the ‘back to list of items’ link, previously highlighted in figure 41. © 2006, University of Essex Page 121 of 198
  • 122. Before turning our attention to the next section, which focuses on ‘contacting eBay’, it is appropriate to make a brief comment regarding the reliability of the eBay system or, at least, user perceptions to it, as this factor will affect the eBay user experience and, potentially, the brand image of eBay, just as much as usability. Indeed, if the majority of users come to hold the opinion cited below - believing that the eBay system will falter as a result of its growth – then trust in the system will suffer. “System creaking under the strain - I think it's only a matter of time before there is a serious software crash with the Ebay system. It's not "if" but "when”?” ( - Community Boards, link expired). As Egger (2003: 41) notes, although, in reality, system reliability can be affected by a wealth of factors, such as “the performance of the website’s servers, the user’s ISP or local network, [and various] hardware and software problems”, users may not be able to attribute perceived unreliability to any specific factor. Novice users may experience even more problems with diagnosis. Accordingly they may blame themselves if, for example, a system crash is experienced. Aware of the mixed technical ability of their audience, eBay do provide some guidance on technical issues and the type of error messages users may encounter, although this information only seems available from – see figure 55. Figure 55: guidance relating to potential error messages and technical issues. No such help information seems to be available on (, n.d., b) © 2006, University of Essex Page 122 of 198
  • 123. Although eBay ‘downtime’ does not appear as salient an issue as it was, say, four years ago, the issue was raised by our respondents, highlighting that it was annoying, especially given the seemingly randomness of its occurrence: They do seem to have quite a lot of downtime, often I try to get onto eBay and it’s just not working for some reason or another. And that irritates me a bit. […] It used to be Friday morning, but now it seems to be fairly random. (Focus Group, E3) And if there’s a problem with eBay, then you just - it goes down the pan in a way. If they crash or go offline for any reason. (Alan, vintage textile seller, interview) eBay sellers, in particular, proved particularly concerned about reliability of eBay (or other ‘technical glitches’) because it affected their ‘bottom line’. For example, Valerie, a vintage jewellery seller, notes the tendency of the eBay system not to show gallery pictures when an item is initially listed, which, she feels, loses her vital ‘eyeballs’: “I don't know why I pay extra for a gallery picture it never shows for 24 hours ( to [sic] many people listing for ebay to cope with ) but if you don't grab the attention of bidders on the first day, your listings get lost amongst the thousands of jewellery items listed” (Valerie’s Blog, 21st July 2005). eBay was also perceived as unreliable in relation to the uploading of pictures, which is clearly blamed on not having enough system capacity: “…my listings took twice as long as they should have. ebay decided that my jpegs were not jpegs and so i had to keep trying to list until they accepted them. this is a common problem with ebay - there was nothing wrong with the pix - just ebay suffering from over use” (Alan, vintage textiles seller, Blog, 25th July 2005). 4.2.4 Filtering Help information & contacting eBay Where eBay users cannot locate the information they need, the provision to filter guidance is available. However, despite this being a useful facility, locating this option is difficult. Indeed, one could argue that only once eBayers have given up their fruitless search, opting to await (e- mailed) help from customer support, might they discover this option. Indeed, contra expectation, the facility to filter Help information is accessed via the ‘Contact Us’ link – see figure 56. Arguably, therefore, if help is needed infrequently, users may forget how to access this filtering facility, necessitating another period of anguished searching. © 2006, University of Essex Page 123 of 198
  • 124. Figure 56:’s ‘Contact Us’ page (, n.d., qq). When a user loads the screen presented in figure 56, it would appear that they are ‘on their way’ to accessing an eBay representative who will answer their query. However, over successive screens, the user’s query is filtered down, and down, until a final page (such as that presented in figure 57) is presented. Only once here does the user have the option to e-mail eBay (using a web-form) if their enquiry is still not satiated. By filtering users to the guidance they require, in this way, eBay are acting to minimise their ‘hands-on’ help in terms of support from an actual eBay customer service representative. © 2006, University of Essex Page 124 of 198
  • 125. Figure 57: After filtering their query down, in accordance with the options presented, the user is presented with a final page, which suggests links related to their query – the link to an e-mail web form is also given. Provisions for contacting eBay were deemed unsatisfactory by some respondents in our study. Specifically, it was highlighted that accessing such contact links is not always easy, and members can become frustrated by the time expended in searching the site, as the following quote from Arthur reveals: I’ve never heard anyone who’s got a good word to say about eBay, they’re very, very unhelpful, actually. The reason being because you can’t talk to anybody. I once tried to put a complaint into eBay, and it took me an hour. And I went round and round and round the site, and finally I gave up, because you just cannot get through, and it keeps saying to go to a different page or do this or do that, do the other, it simply leads you a merry dance and you get no where. The thing is the only person you can trust is yourself. (Arthur, radio collector) The fact that members cannot locate eBay’s actual e-mail address, as it is not explicitly presented on the site, further compounds the issue. In particular, some members are dissatisfied that they cannot obtain eBay’s e-mail address, in order to submit their e-mail query in a more ‘traditional’ way (i.e. not via a web-form): […] that really, really does infuriate me. And that almost infuriates me as much as trying to find the person in eBay that you’re supposed to tell about it, because they haven’t half hidden it well, their e- mail address - when you’re supposed to report these sort of things. That’s one thing that I do really hate about eBay, and I’ll stomp on it every time it happens. (Oscar, radio collector) © 2006, University of Essex Page 125 of 198
  • 126. Essentially, in terms of contacting eBay, whereas e-mail communication (in the form of web- forms) is a possibility, offline communications via, for example, phone, fax, mail, and face-to-face opportunities, are not possible. Concerning Paypal, however, if people have an issue of immediate concern and they cannot find an answer anywhere else on the site, contacting Paypal’s Customer Service Centre is possible, if one interrogates the eBay site in order to locate the necessary link - to take them off-eBay to the Paypal website or if they visit directly. As Fogg (2002) recommends, a simple way for e-commerce sites to boast their credibility is to make contact information (and channels) clear. Regards the provision for users to contact eBay, in our study there were concerns that facilities fell short of their need, especially for sellers. In particular, the fact that members cannot directly contact eBay by phone was highlighted on a number of occasions. For example, Alan, an eBayer trader of vintage textiles, commented: I think most … eBay sellers, would love, their own phone line for eBay. […] [But] you’ll get the main people, the management from eBay saying their customers have said they don’t want a phone line. And you go: ‘oh come on! Who did you ask?’ You just need some help sometimes. They need to be quicker off the mark explaining for instance why there’s a problem, rather than leaving us all for say a couple of days, and then saying there’s a problem. […] I think [phone support] should be available to anyone to be honest. I mean, I do understand eBay would be inundated by phone calls all day, I understand that’s the problem, but they need to sort something out, some sort of correspondence. (Alan, vintage textile seller, interview) Regardless of their specific query, once e-mail contact has been initiated by an eBayer, it is vital that eBay’s response is prompt and informative – “prompt, courteous and competent answers can have a higher impact on customer loyalty … than advertising or mailing campaigns” (Zingale and Arndt, 2001: 126). Indeed, perhaps prompted by the urgency of the situation (e.g. a fastly approaching auction close) and the associated need for timely advice, members expect prompt replies to their e-mail messages. Here, as has been reported in the literature, expectation regarding speed of response is closer to that of a phone call than to that of physical mail (Zingale and Arndt, 2001). To accord with expectations and communicate responsiveness (and mirror best practice), eBay do ensure that enquirers receive immediate feedback that their query is queued for processing. © 2006, University of Essex Page 126 of 198
  • 127. Indeed, following contact, eBay forward an immediate e-mail response which highlights that an eBay customer representative will be in touch as soon as possible, courteously adding “we thank you for your patience”. In terms of the actual reply, however, as revealed by the authors’ personal experiences, eBay do not consistently adhere to best practice in terms of addressing the eBayer by name and/or signaling the responding Customer Service representative as an identifiable individual. Sometimes such personal touches are witnessed. On occasion, however, the reply just provides general appellations such as ‘eBay Safe Harbour Department’, ‘eBay Trust and Safety’, or ‘eBay Customer Support UK’. Regards the quality of help or assistance received, in addition to the promptness of the reply, quality in terms of relevance and completeness is also of paramount importance. With such concerns in mind, eBay tend to follow reply e-mails with a request to rate the quality of the service received (‘eBay - Email Handling Opinion Needed’) - the invitation to provide such feedback, via a web-based survey, expires after five days and can be taken anonymously if required. Although none of our respondents reported sending feedback in response to such requests, comments were not always positive concerning customer service support, despite eBay achieving a relatively quick turn-around of incoming e-mails. Arguably, negative perceptions largely inferred dissatisfaction concerning ‘rule-assisted answers’, which seemingly bear little or no connection to the original query. In such instances it would appear that the reply is automatically generated, based on either the general title of the initial query or keywords presented in the e-mail itself. If replies disaccord with expectation, and a less than satisfactory user experience results, eBayers assume that the eBay representative has made little effort to fully understand their query and provide an adequate response. As an example, the following comment from our data reveals the frustration of awaiting a response and then receiving an unsuitable reply. Here, the seller attributes the quality of response to the competence of the representative – they believed some representatives were good and some useless. Accordingly, the highlighted that they might submit a subsequent query, hoping to access a ‘less useless’ representative next time: I have heard back from Ebay regarding my MAKE ME AN OFFER in my shop listing. I don't think he quite understood what I was asking, he said ( which I knew already) you can do it with cars , or there is such a thing as a SECOND CHANCE OFFER in auction listings, I know that, what I was talking about was shop listings, I will leave it for now and ask again later , I might get someone with some sense next time. That's the trouble it all depends who deals with your question at ebay customer services, some are © 2006, University of Essex Page 127 of 198
  • 128. very good and helpful some are useless. (Valerie, vintage jewellery seller, Blog, 28th July, 2005) 4.2.5 Keeping eBay ‘abloat’ “The fact that [eBay] has been around this long seems to be part of the problem - nothing can be changed without serious thought, because while the changes may be for the better, there are so many users who are used to the site behaving a certain way and you really don't want to upset these people!” (Lloyd, 2003). While eBay is undeniably head and shoulders above others in the competitive e-commerce arena, it is also, arguably, keeping itself ‘abloat’28 [sic] through a barrage of constant site revisions and additions. In addition to the potentially negative impact on the site’s informational content, site revisions and additions can also negatively affect the experience of users who’ve come to rely on interacting in certain ways. Indeed, any changes made may hinder their goal. For example, revisions to eBay’s categories may hamper the experiences of, not only browsers, but sellers who’ve come to rely on familiar categories when it comes to listing their items, as the following quote highlights: B: I think the biggest irritation with eBay is the change of categories RE: Yes, they have been keen to implement that haven’t they? B: They’ve done it twice in the stamp area recently RE: Have they? B: Yeah, what’s irritating about it is that the old style categories become something different RE: Ah, so it.. […] B: So if you had stored in Turbolister a particular cover, you have to be careful when you go back to it that something that’s been there for about a year say, you have to check the category because eBay has changed the categories. (Bill, stamp and cover collector) 28 As McGrenere (2000) offers, software ‘bloat’ can be defined as the result of adding new features to a program or system to the point where any potential benefits are outweighed by the impact on the technical resources and the complexity of use. “The implication is that a bloated application is one in which there are a large number of unused features” (McGrenere, 2000: 1). © 2006, University of Essex Page 128 of 198
  • 129. A relatively new addition to the site, ‘My eBay for Guests’, represents a potentially powerful feature in terms of getting people to ‘sign up’. Specifically, it provides unregistered ‘lurkers’ with a glimpse of the facilities offered, beyond simply perusing the items available, before they have to commit certain personal and contact details as part of eBay’s online registration process - i.e. they can delay registration for as long as possible, while still gaining an appreciation of what eBay has to offer. However, a recent revision to this feature has been seen to cause a certain degree of havoc, not for ‘eBay Guests’, but for fully-fledged eBay members. Specifically, for registered users used to a more minimum ‘click-stream’, who would, for example, sign in via ‘My eBay’ or only when they needed to watch an item, they are now presented with an additional step. Rather than accessing a sign in screen as the next step, users respectively receive one of the screens below, following their request for either ‘My eBay’ (see figure 58) or ‘watch this item’ (see figure 59). Accessing these screens can cause confusion, especially as the users’ request relates to accessing ‘My eBay’ (or saving a watched item) and the resulting dialogue refers to them as ‘a guest’. Figure 58: When opting to access ‘My eBay’, registered users are presented with this interim page where they are welcomed as a guest. From here, registered users need to select ‘Sign in’, in order to enter their username and password and access their personal ‘My eBay’ page. © 2006, University of Essex Page 129 of 198
  • 130. Figure 59: When opting to watch an item (via ‘My eBay’) registered users are informed that the item has been ‘added to My eBay for Guests’. From this interim page, registered users then need to select ‘Sign in’ to add the item to ‘My eBay’. Arguably, this revision can been considered an eBay ploy to encourage eBayers to sign in as a matter of course, when they first access the site. Although this recent move was outside of our ‘data gathering schedule’, anecdotal evidence from the eBay community pages, in particular, seems to suggest that some users are frustrated by the need for addition steps, as the following comments on eBay Community Boards indicate (, 2005 – expired threads): • Example 1: I'm getting fed up to the back teeth with this. I go to and the page identifies me by my username. I then click on my ebay and it takes me to the guest page! I then have to click again - enter my log in - then click again in order to get where I should be able to go with one click from the very first page. • Example 2: Well I have just clicked on an item to be watched,and it has ended up in `my guests`-what next with ebay! And I haven`t got any guests,whatever that is for - I haven`t bothered to work it out yet The roll out of ‘My eBay for Guests’ also appeared to be accompanied by technical problems, as the HTML and Technical Issues Discussion Board was awash with pleas for help after people were constantly having to sign in, often missing out on auctions as a result (, 2005 – expired threads): © 2006, University of Essex Page 130 of 198
  • 131. • Example 1: I'm glad I'm not the only one who is having this problem today. What's more, whoever designed the ebay for guests system didn't realise what a royal pain it is when it logs you out of your own account every 10 seconds and then forces you to waste ages logging back in using the correct sequence to add items back into your own account which you were already logged in on in the first damn instance. EBAY GET THIS RESOLVED PLEASE • Example 2: What's going on, please, ebay? I still don't know how to stop this happening, but it's really starting to grate- I've just missed out on 2 more auctions due to not being logged in! SORT THIS MESS OUT • Example 3: THIS IS BRILLIANT Been on ebay for one hour, so far 72 log ons, no log-outs, 5 missed bids, 8 failed bids, one successful bid, but outbid! Thanks ebay! As one of the following post suggests, this ‘hiccup’ represented a significant moment of truth, particularly for sellers, some of whom were threatening to take their trade off-eBay rather than risk upsetting potential buyers who were missing their chance to bid (, 2005 – expired thread): I'm glad to see it's not only me, there are going to be a lot of unhappy sellers as well as buyers if this log-on problems/ bloody guest page/ dll file crap aren't sorted out. i know several sellers who have said they are going to offer stuff privately to past customers rather than loose out with folks not being able to bid last minute- Come on we all do it!! I'm just wondering if the uber-beings ever read the mutterings and rantings of the under-classes. Come on ebay get your act sorted Other users were confused by this recent change, believing that they are having ‘sign in problems’. Indeed, as one posting offered (, 2005 – expired thread): When I log into my Ebay to sign in, I keep being redirected onto the eBay for guests site, and have to sign in from there. This has only started happening fairly recently - is it standard, or is it just me having problems? In addition, the revision was viewed as ‘suspicious’ by some eBayers, who believed it might be a ‘spoof’ (, 2005 – expired thread): Have clicked on my "eBay summary" - which has been saved in my favourites on my computer. The sign in page is really different. SO I AM SUSPICISIOUS (and brain dead cos I can't spell that word for the moment!! TSP feel free to pounce). © 2006, University of Essex Page 131 of 198
  • 132. It comes up Welcome to Ebay for Guests - and it didn't do that the other night. Have they changed it? Tried another couple of pages and it comes up the same too. Have not clicked on any links in spoofs or changed my settings on saved www. pages...... What's occuring?? When changes to functionality, etc., are made, eBay are aware of “the potential for [these] changes to affect how … users do their business” (Braun, et al, 2003: 120). For this reason, on occasion, eBay are seen to provide an overlap period when old and new products are available. As an example, after making changes to their site map and services page, eBay still allows users familiar with the original arrangement, to access the original site map and services page – see figure 60, below. Such overlap periods let users try out a new arrangement before the old one disappears forever, replaced by the new as the default. Moreover, especially when rolling out new products with major sets of functionality, eBay may make revisions in accordance with user feedback, adding additional features over time. Here, the community boards can prove insightful. eBay also collect user feedback through more formal channels (e.g. ‘community panels’), as will be discussed later (see ‘eBay: understanding their user base’). Figure 60: After making alterations to their ‘Site Map’ and ‘Services Page’, eBay still allow users to access the original information pages (, n.d., rr). 4.2.6 ‘Closing the Loop’ via Customer Feedback The effective management of customer relationships relies on customer feedback. With its emphasis on creating a ‘community feel’, eBay needs to be perceived as responsive to its users’ needs, particularly those of sellers, whose participation is eBay’s ‘bread and butter’. As Calkins (2001) comments, sellers are closer to the market and so can act, in some respects, as eBay’s eyes and ears in the field. With respect to managing customer feedback (or suggestions) from either buyers or sellers, the key guiding principle is that “it should always be possible and easy for customers to give © 2006, University of Essex Page 132 of 198
  • 133. feedback” (Zingale and Arndt, 2001: 145). If this is not the case, then the number of customer suggestions will suffer, not just in terms of numbers, but also due to the ‘representativeness’ of the feedback received. Indeed, if feedback is limited to those who know such channels exist, the comments received may not be representative of the wider eBay community. Despite eBay’s statement that “the communication we receive from our community members is critical toward helping us adapt and improve our services to better meet your needs” (, n.d., mm), the provision to submit feedback/suggestions (e.g. improving the eBay site, suggesting new categories, or opinions on recent site revisions), while available, remains relatively hidden. Although eBay does provide this option, it is buried two levels down in the ‘New to eBay’ section. This structure is not ideal, as the tendency may be arguably towards more experienced users submitting suggestions to eBay rather than newer members. To make this facility more visible, the current authors suggest that a ‘suggestions link’ should be provided in ‘My eBay’, perhaps in addition to its current location. Unaware of such a facility and motivated to see if a link existed, the current authors consulted eBay’s A-Z Index. Here, although available, the link was provided under the incredibly vague label of ‘suggestion’ (revealing inconsistency in labelling as the page retrieved is entitled ‘Sending Suggestions to eBay’). As it stands, the title of this hyperlink reveals little indication of what members may find if they select this option – see figure 61, below. Figure 61: Linking to ‘Sending Suggestions to eBay’ via eBay’s A-Z Help Index. It is argued that the name of this link is not optimal – it provides minimal indication of what users may find if they select this option. Once the suggestions link is found, however, the resulting feedback/suggestions form is quite ‘unprescribed’ and not subject to any constraints such as the number of characters allowed – see figure 62. As defined by Zingale and Arndt (2001: 146), this type of generic arrangement is © 2006, University of Essex Page 133 of 198
  • 134. optimal, allowing customers the freedom to “offer feedback at any time on any subject”. Using this facility, eBayers can comment, complain, commend, and/or ask questions through the ‘Choose a different subject’ link which accesses the filtered eBay Help/Contact Us e-mail system previously described. Figure 62: The feedback/suggestions form is quite ‘freeform’ and does not dictate, for example, the maximum number of characters allowed. Ironically, after accessing this page, the current authors sent a suggestion to eBay regarding how to optimise use of this facility via a more meaningful link and the provision of additional access routes. However, despite being informed that my suggestion had been forwarded on to eBay’s product development team for review, sadly, no revisions have been seen on the site to date. As a new feature, eBay have recently introduced a feedback field on a number (not all) of the guidance pages, in order to request feedback concerning the helpfulness of the information provided. This facility appears to mirror that recently seen on Amazon : © 2006, University of Essex Page 134 of 198
  • 135. Figure 63: A relatively recent addition to eBay’s Help system is the ability for users to rate and/or provide feedback on the information presented (see top figure). This feature is similar to that recently seen on Amazon (see bottom figure). Hopefully, if eBayers make use of this facility, and provides honest opinions concerning the information provided, necessary changes to eBay’s help support will be established. eBay: understanding their user base “We always have to speak with our user base. It’s imperative” (Walter cited in Braun et al, 2002: 111). In addition to collecting feedback from users ‘after the event’ (as in the examples above), eBay are seen to conduct periodic testing with a range of user representatives in order to tailor each aspect of the site in accordance with the needs declared (Braun, et al., 2002). For example, aware that their diverse user base have different motivations for visiting the site (e.g. searching © 2006, University of Essex Page 135 of 198
  • 136. for specific items, searching for gifts or just browsing for fun), eBay currently work with Keynote Systems (formerly Vividence) who run eBay’s eBay Consumer Panel, in order to understand the experiences of different categories of user. In a recent exercise, designed to understand eBay’s Home and Garden customers in a little more detail, the intent was to determine how visitors were using the search tools available and any associated issues and frustrations that visitors encountered. As Jeannie Reeth, Senior Category Manager of Home and Garden at eBay states, “the idea was to understand why some people were successful and others weren’t so we could apply the right recipe to everyone” (Keynote, 2005: 1). “…we needed to understand the needs of our buyers and how they shop in order to better merchandise to them. If buyers can navigate the site more effectively and find exactly what they are looking for, we will be able to significantly drive conversion rates29 in the days and months ahead” (John McDonald, Director of Home and Garden at eBay, cited by Keynote, 2005: 2). This important research exercise highlighted several important findings, useful to inform site revisions and promote a more positive user experience. Firstly, with respect to the Home and Garden category, it was discovered that “a high percentage of bidding activity on eBay … comes from products listed on the first page of search results, and that the majority of consumers do not browse the full set of pages of listed products” - a finding which suggested that eBay must encourage users to refine their “product searches sooner to ensure that the most relevant items fall within the first few pages” (Keynote, 2005: 2). The Keynote study also revealed differing experiences between those who seek products with specific brand names and those whose search is not informed in this way, as the former were found to have “a better all-round experience on the site than customers who do not know specific brands” (Keynote, 2005: 2). This finding confirmed the importance of providing additional search and browse tools, such as product finders, to assist visitors who do not have a brand in mind. With respect to the Home and Garden category, therefore, the Keynote data helped determine the attributes to be included in the product finders to allow users to base searches not just on brand, but also on product size, condition and colour. The Keynote study also highlighted the vital importance of adequate picture quality and number of photographs, as a number of shoppers on eBay Home and Garden expressed a preference to see both higher quality photographs and more images (and close-ups) in item descriptions. © 2006, University of Essex Page 136 of 198
  • 137. In addition to out-sourced research such as that provided by Keynote, eBay also periodically send out invitations to participate in user surveys, so they can better understand and design for an optimal user experience. The following comment from Alan, a vintage textile seller on eBay, highlights that, in their web surveys, eBay do not provide enough scope for user feedback through a reliance on a 3-way likert-based scoring system, which adopts just ‘excellent’, ‘adequate’ or ‘poor’. Moreover, in a return to the topic of eBay’s customer service, Alan comments that ‘poor’ scores were mainly reserved for customer support: ebay have been hassling me about filling in a survey for them. i didn't really want to do one - but after about the 5th email from them - i relented. a very strange survey. there seemed very little room for comment - it was narrowed down to 'excellent', 'adequate', or 'poor'. there were a number of 'poors' i must admit. it's very difficult to be a seller and not to tick 'poor' for 'customer support'. no phone line, vague email responses, no support - hmmm! still they did ask me to say something positive about the ebay experience - so i said that ebay had given me a business and had allowed me to have many customers outside the UK - how magnanimous of me - but also true - so i can't be too hard on ebay - despite its numerous faults. (Alan, vintage textile seller, Blog, 6th August 2005) Although appearing to have a largely US focus, another important way eBay stay in direct contact with members is through the Voice of the Community program, commonly referred to as ‘Voices’, which was started in April 1999 “in response to anger over the prohibition on firearms and the closing of live support boards” (Lewis, 2004). According to Chris Tsakalakis (2005), Senior Director of eBay Stores, eBay show new ideas to member of ‘Voices’ in order to “get their input early in the development cycle”. As reported in June 2004, approximately 250 people have participated in this general programme to date (Lewis, 2004). The following excerpt from The News Chatter – eBay Community Newsletter - provides an indication of how ‘Voices’ works (Daphne, eBay Staff Member, 2003): “Several times a year, eight to ten members are flown to eBay's corporate office in San Jose, California. They are chosen from all levels of eBay's buying and selling community - from Shooting Stars and PowerSellers, to mom-and-pop sellers, and all levels of buyers. The first meeting is always a brainstorming session. This is the time that each participant is given the opportunity to bring up the issues and concerns he or she would like to see addressed over the course of the conference. 29 “In e-commerce, a conversion rate is the ratio of orders to site visits” (Rincon, n.d.). © 2006, University of Essex Page 137 of 198
  • 138. Subsequent sessions are held with staff from Customer Support, Trust & Safety, and Product Management and Development, and other organizations within eBay. The questions that arose in the brainstorming session are addressed in the most appropriate session. The two days are very busy and can be intense! Throughout the conference, members are encouraged to explain their experiences, problems and concerns, as well as offer feedback on new proposals or product features. They also get the opportunity to get to know many of the people making the day-to-day decisions at eBay, and learn more about the complexities they face and their strategies for dealing with them. After the event, Voices participants continue to have input on eBay policy and features through regular conference calls and email discussions. Participants sign non-disclosure agreements while in San Jose, a standard business contract that ensures participants will not speak publicly about information discussed in Voices sessions”. eBay also occasionally hold online ‘Community Workshops’, sponsored by eBay’s Community Development team, which are hosted on the community boards. During such sessions - which relate to certain topics - eBay staff members are available to gather feedback and answer questions. Additionally, through its ‘pinks’ (eBay employees who frequent and post to the community boards), eBay is seen to collect suggestions for new features and learn of concerns through its community pages. While this does provide a picture of a cross section of eBay experiences, one could argue that the feedback received it somewhat skewed, originating from only those who feel confident enough or, perhaps, annoyed enough to grace the community pages. Indeed, although comments are ‘anonymised’ in terms of being linked to one’s eBay ID, potential posters may feel intimidated that their comment is public, able to be seen by all. Concerns regarding postings are further exasperated with instances of ‘auction wrecking’ and subsequent ‘feedback bombing’ and/or ‘nastygrams’, occurring in response to postings on the community pages (englandboy, n.d.). Indeed, many eBayers seem aware that they are only thinly disguised by the pseudo-anonymity offered by one’s user ID. Even within the confines of eBay itself, members can experience harassment from eBay members whom they have never met physically, or otherwise encountered virtually (i.e. transacted with). In our study, due to the threat of auction wrecking, in particular, a number of participants reported that they now use ‘posting IDs’ so they can comment on the community boards without fear of reprisal from a disagreeing eBayer who may wreck one’s auctions, or ‘spite bid’ in order to ensure that the original poster loses an auction: © 2006, University of Essex Page 138 of 198
  • 139. Yeah, and also I’ve found if you have problems with sellers or buyers, and you post on your own id, then people do just wreck auctions. Like they just go and bid stupid amounts or buy it now and don’t, you know, and it’s just like ... It’s more for convenience and also, I don’t know, you know ... I think when you’re on chat boards people do know a bit more about you because they tend to get what your view is on everything. So, I don’t want them to see my About Me page, for instance. (Focus Group, E2) In addition to concerns regarding publicly viewed postings on the community boards, some eBayers fear repercussions resulting from reporting other eBay users to eBay. In the eBay system, reporting other eBayers to eBay for – for example – shill bidding, can represent a source of anxiety and uncertainty. Indeed, since the reporting party is removed from the loop because of 'privacy', there are concerns that the reported member can find out, or at least make a guess concerning the reporter’s identity. The ‘reporter’ is not copied in on the e-mails sent to the ‘reported party’ for ‘privacy reasons’, and although eBay make assurances elsewhere on their website, removal from the (e-mail) loop fuels uncertainty concerning what was said to the reported party. The reported party may ‘infer’ who reported them, and make it seem like eBay passed the information on – allowing intimidation and the threat of direct consequences from the reporting, such as legal involvement. 4.3 eBay & affective experience In traditional HCI design, the ‘emotional fit’ is often restricted to user satisfaction resulting from usability. Indeed, with the exception of computer games, software applications are not typically pleasurable or fun to use. Applications tend to focus on delivering functionality, rather than delivering an ‘enjoyable experience’. Often cited as the father of the current ‘beyond usability’ trend, Logan (1994) acknowledged an expanded definition of usability, with both emotional and behavioural dimensions. While behavioural usability addresses user needs as defined by a more traditional approach (i.e. to complete some function or goal-directed task within an acceptable amount of time), emotional usability “refers to the degree to which a product is desirable or serves a need beyond the traditional functional perspective” (Logan, 1994: 61). Representing product attributes central to emotional usability, Logan suggested that user interfaces (UIs) should be engaging, foster a sense of discovery and eliminate fear - a computer or video game being a perfect example of an emotionally usable product. © 2006, University of Essex Page 139 of 198
  • 140. Returning our thoughts to e-commerce, motivations to engage in online shopping seem to mirror those associated with traditional, offline retail environments, in that both utilitarian and hedonic dimensions can be delineated (for a full discussion see Perea y Monsuwé et al, 2004). Indeed, further to the functional (utilitarian) benefits afforded by e-commerce, which may concern “purchasing products in an efficient and timely manner to achieve their goals with a minimum of irritation” (Childers et al, 2001: 513), exists the potential to satisfy motivations pertaining to more hedonic benefits such as ‘fun’, ‘enjoyment’, and ‘play’ (Childers et al, 2001). Thus, given the potential for affect to afford “a significant part of [the] variance in users’ behaviour” (Sun and Zhang, 2006: 2), it is possible to suggest that especially in terms of initial encounters, the affective aspects of eBay’s use may be poignant to its stickiness, representing some of why eBay is seen to ‘matter’, which extends beyond the pleasures associated with finding unique bargains from all over the world without leaving one’s home (Calkins, 2001). 4.3.1 eBay as a ‘fun’ experience Following from the previous section, which concerned Bay’s usability, we will expand this account through a consideration of the emotional or affective experience eBay affords. The discussion here, therefore, will serve to show how the overall eBay experience may mitigate the existence of defects in its usability. “There’s a lot of people out there for whom eBay is, like me, a form of entertainment. It’s amazing what you find on eBay” (Douglas McCallum, The Money Programme, eBay: Money for Old Rope, 08/02/2005). Although totally different to a computer game in terms of its interaction style and utility or functional purpose, eBay can nonetheless be regarded to have ‘emotional usability’. Indeed, words such as ‘fun’, ‘enjoyable’ or ‘exhilarating’ are often levelled at eBay, by users who could, potentially, spend hours just browsing the site. A wealth of anecdotal quotes and many of the comments made by our respondents, all seem to point to the ‘fun’ or otherwise pleasant experience eBay affords. Accounts pertaining to this aspect were varied. For example, there were reports from collectors who enjoyed eBay as a “pleasant way to collect” (Keith, stamp and cover collector), those who regarded eBay as both fun (and surprising) and “a bit more entertaining because of the auction thing” (Focus Group, M3), and those whose eBay enjoyment directly related © 2006, University of Essex Page 140 of 198
  • 141. to the fulfilment of their transaction and the subsequent absorption of an item into their collection: It may probably sound a bit stupid, but, you know, I bought ten yesterday - it’s waiting for those ten to arrive. I’ve got all my books out at the moment, because I’m sorting them all out again, because I’ve got to insert new leaves in, and in different places, and so, it’s a form of excitement. I think, by Thursday, by Friday, I’ll get ten more covers, you know - and I can sit there … and put these covers into my album, and sitting back, looking at them all, you know. It probably sounds a bit ridiculous in some respects. Somebody of my age… (Neil, stamp and cover collector) Additionally, our data revealed comments suggesting that eBay pleasures often go beyond those associated with selling or even winning auctions. Indeed, even for sellers, the pleasures of eBay often extended beyond those typically associated with selling such as the ‘financial rewards’ or even the ability to de-clutter one’s life, as the following two quotes highlight: “I just do it for the fun of it really, it’s not big money or anything” (Focus Group, E3) “I just thought I’m doing this because a) because space, plus the fun of it” (Focus Group, M1) Similarly, for bidders, eBay pleasures often extended beyond those typically associated with securing an item for oneself through the process of winning an auction - even the uncertainty associated with the auction was considered exciting: “[…] I think that’s part of the whole joy of, you know, of eBay, and of auctions in general. You know, last minute excitement of not knowing whether you’re going to be the one who wins out and how far you’re going to go and what the dynamics are going to be, you know.” (Focus Group, E3). Additionally, for potential bidders, the wide scope of items listed on eBay was indicated as affording a space where visitors can browse to satiate needs extending beyond those typically associated with e-commerce. Indeed, on occasion, visits may be fuelled by the motivation to be ‘entertained’, rather than through any motivation to place bids, list items for sale, or otherwise update the status of one’s eBay activities. Browsing in this way, as a fun activity, also allows visitors to observe the diversity of items listed and the prices such items fetch, without the need to be directly involved in the transactions: AP: Sometimes I look just for fun - like the other day I was looking for aeroplanes [group laughter]. R: Big fighters… © 2006, University of Essex Page 141 of 198
  • 142. AP: You can get fighters on eBay. There was a really cheap one - £2500, three years old. (Focus Group, M4) Extending this account, the draw of eBay can sometimes be attributed to a ‘fascination’ with the diversity and sometimes bizarreness of the items for sale. Recent reports that Jordan is planning to sell her discarded silicone implants on the site (Ananova, 2006), is testament to the oft cited comment that ‘you can get anything on eBay’: I am really sad, I probably do think of something - everyday. I wonder if you can get that on eBay. I’m always fascinated by whatever you want, you can get it on eBay. (Focus Group, M2). The draw of ‘fantastical items’ was frequently cited during our focus group discussions with respondents signalling that, on occasion, they may access the site purely to see if someone is selling ‘X’: “That you can just put in some bizarre thing that you’re thinking of and there it is” (Focus Group, M4). Occasionally, some browsers appear intent to ‘eBay-whack’30 - to use a term of phrase originally coined in relation to Google, whereby searchers aim to define a word-pairing where only one result is retrieved by Google (Gorman, n.d.). Indeed, although this actual phrase wasn’t used by respondents, it appears that some eBay visitors engage in a quest to find something that cannot be found on eBay, or where only one entry can be retrieved worldwide, as the following comment from Laura, one of our ‘experienced’ eBay users, reveals: […] I put in, like, Babushka doll - you know, like the Russian stacking dolls, and of course there’s loads of them. And then I was thinking - [laughter] ‘nipple clamps’! Because you try to think of things, you’re thinking ‘no way they’ll sell these on eBay.’ So you’re just putting in random things… (Focus Group, M2) Observational evidence of the site also indicates that some eBayers may primarily31 use the site as a forum to buy items billed as ‘weird’ – a niche that eBay arguably seems to acknowledge and feed by hosting several weird sub-categories in the collectables section (see figure 64). The notion of eBay as place to satiate a more ‘fun consumption drive’, is further supported by reports - derived informally by the authors - that groups of friends occasionally hold competitions to buy 30 “eBaywhack is a bit like Googlewhack but the idea is you find a word that, when searched for, produces only one auction worldwide. As eBay's database is somewhat smaller than Google's, this can still be done with one word rather than two” (, n.d., oo). © 2006, University of Essex Page 142 of 198
  • 143. the strangest thing on eBay for less than a elected amount – e.g. the weirdest Christmas present for five pounds or under. Figure 64: eBay has a ‘Weird Stuff’ category, which hosts a range of items billed by sellers as ‘weird’. Arguably, many of the items listed in these categories are billed in this way, by sellers, just to get ‘eyeballs’. Extending accounts pertaining to less utilitarian motivations for using eBay, is Denegri-Knott’s and Molesworth’s (2005a) observation that consumers may view eBay, not necessarily as a place to get a bargain, but as a “space to marvel, dream and think”. According to this conceptualisation, browsing on eBay can be regarded as fun or otherwise enjoyable, because it feeds the imagination: “eBay has a role in feeding, developing and even exorcising consumer daydreams and that the desirable pleasures produced by this function account for at least some of eBay's popularity” (Denegri-Knott and Molesworth, 2005b). In addition to ‘intelligently interpreting’ the feedback of others in order to look behind their actual feedback rating, which was discussed previously, the ability to investigate the buying and selling histories of others also constitutes a fun activity. Indeed, people may ‘snoop’ around the transaction histories of others, not motivated to glean a better picture of a potential transaction partner, but just to be ‘nosey’, often with the intention to be entertained. However, one could argue that, although investigation performed to gauge the trustworthiness of another seems a justified thing for eBay to allow, investigation outside of this sphere can present an ethical dilemma: L: The …thing that it’s fun to do sometimes is to go back and look at what some people have actually bought on eBay by going back through their feedback and clicking on the item, because that can be very amusing. 31 Although using the term ‘primarily’, the authors acknowledge that some eBayers have more than one account. Accordingly, it is conceivable that bidders use a separate eBay account to buy ‘weird items’ so that any ‘more serious’ © 2006, University of Essex Page 143 of 198
  • 144. T: I’m not sure that you should be allowed to do that really […] It just seems a bit strange, that you can go through. A: Sorry? T: It just seems a bit strange, that you can go through. (Focus Group, M2) Amusement, however, wasn’t purely related to the items being transacted as, occasionally, auction pictures reveal aspects of the seller’s private home space – taken as part of the background of a photo for an item listing. Indeed, as the following quote reveals, through the signs and objects that lie within item images, we are invited into peoples’ domestic spaces (Cartledge, 2005), which can prove an interesting or entertaining activity in itself: KS: … you can click on people’s feedbacks and you can look at all the items that are in their history. And so I was able to look at all of this junk that this person had … But it was really, really quite… Erm, what was it? A perspex, erm, high heeled shoe phone [laughs]. ALL: [laughs]. KS: There was loads of it. And also because of the way that he’d taken these photographs of these little items, you could see his living room as well. PL: Yeah, I know. You can see quite a lot of people’s, like, living rooms or like they take it on the bed or they ‘re on their desk quite a lot. I tend to just prop mine up against the back of my chair and take it, so you can’t see... (Focus Group, E2) Based on the material history provided in one’s feedback profile, snoopers can also construct a ‘image’ of the bidder or buyer under scrutiny, which can provide an additional avenue for amusement: KS: … I was having some fun, err, yes constructing this image of this, erm, well … We could work out that he was sort of a closet camp, gay bloke, because of all the stuff that was going on, as well - all this buying. […] So we were constructing this story, if you like, or this image or who he was. I’m not sure about why I was actually… what actually brought me to this particular thing. (Focus Group, E2) As by-product of browsing ‘fantastical’ items on eBay, users can single out the user ID of particular bidders, with the intention to peruse the other items that they’ve transacted, as either activity will not be tainted by a feedback profile containing bizarre items. © 2006, University of Essex Page 144 of 198
  • 145. a buyer or a seller. As the following quote reveals, depending on the type of items investigated, some eBayers with a penchant for quite ‘dodgy’ items can be uncovered, buying items from sellers who tend to bill themselves as “‘students’ [gestured quote marks] … putting themselves through University”: I was up until like four o’clock in the morning on eBay, the other night, and I was just like … I looked at my watch and thought oh my god. I wasn’t buying anything. I wasn’t ... I had no items for sale., I was browsing for random...erm, that was when I was bored and I was just typing in girlfriend and finding all these online girlfriends I can buy myself for two weeks. And like then, and then people were bidding. So then I went to look at this guy’s feedback, who was bidding, so see what other kind of stuff he was buying, and like... […] This guy I’d found had like bid on online girlfriends - that’s all he’d bid on. He had like forty-odd transactions with the same, like, you know, I will send you a worn thong, postage four pounds kind of thing [laughs]. (Focus Group, E2) Snooping may also be motivated by a desire to keep an eye on an eBayer one has had a bad experience with. In the following example, one of our sellers, named Rory, who had a particularly bad experience due to a misunderstanding concerning payment (he ended up being arrested), made sure that he ‘kept an eye’ on this person’s feedback profile, in order that he could ‘delight’ if negative feedback was left. This respondent, who also reported to stalking certain of their friends, even had a term for this activity, ‘eStalking’: RW: I must admit I’ve been watching the guy who put me in prison… ALL: [laughs]. RW: … just in the hope that somebody leaves a negative feedback. RE: What feedback did he leave for you, then, if he put you in prison? RW: He just put some sort of like ‘Beware!!’ PL: Did you follow it up, with this guy who got you put in jail? RW: But I sent the guy an e-mail and he wouldn’t reply to it because he was too scared. But I must say, I would call it eStalking. eBay stalking just to see what he’s doing. AH: We’ve said that, because I’m an eBay stalker [laughs]. ALL: [laughs]. PL: I don’t just do it to random people, but I have got a couple of mates who buy and sell on there. AH: Yes. PL: But they normally sell, so when they buy stuff I’m quite interested to see what they’re buying - to © 2006, University of Essex Page 145 of 198
  • 146. have a look. (Focus Group, E2) As the above quote suggests, snooping can be a particularly rewarding experience when the subject of one’s ‘eStalking’ is a personal friend. Indeed, if the user ID of a friend is known, eBayers may periodically ‘stalk’ their friends on eBay, perhaps even reporting back, if it’s felt that the friend might not ‘mind’ to much: “And then she sends me sniggery e-mails saying: ‘Oh L, why did you buy this?’ [group laughter]” (Focus Group, M2). Of course, the snooper shouldn’t be surprised to find their friend reciprocating: L: …I’ve got quite a lot of crappy books and stuff, so, erm, I’m getting rid of quite a lot. I had a Gary Barlow CD, and she sent me an e-mail saying: ‘L, Gary Barlow!’ [Group laughter] L: So she just sits there sniggering …at the things I try and sell. T: You’ll have to go in for the witness protection scheme - new identity and everything. [Group laughter] L: Maybe my selling identity ought to be separate and private, but I’ll never let on what it is so she never finds out what I’m selling. She does it to me all the time! I better look at what M______’s selling. (Focus Group, M2) Snooping others on eBay, however, isn’t always motivated by ‘revenge’, ‘amusement’ or ‘boredom’. Indeed, as an extension to our previous account of intelligent interpretation, another student respondent revealed a need to investigate the transaction histories of bidders he was in competition with, to assess how ‘serious’ they are. Here, as the intention was to evaluate their chance in a given auction, rather than interpreting the feedback per se, the snooping was towards identifying a competitor’s buying habits, including the type of prices they are prepared to pay. As the follow up comment indicates, additionally, such investigation may also prove beneficial in terms of weeding out auctions where shill bidding is likely to occur: KS: When I’m in an auction I’ll have a look at what other people ... you know the people who are bidding against me. Basically find out who they are, what they have also been buying, how serious they are, before I want to buy. PL: I have seen a few cases of shill bidding on items I’m thinking of buying, so that’s my main reason I look up. I check what people are bidding on, like if they’ve been on the same user again and again, then that’s obviously shill bidding and you can report it. And nothing happens, though, most of the time, but you feel better for it. And you don’t bid on the item and it makes me feel a bit better. I’m not © 2006, University of Essex Page 146 of 198
  • 147. getting ripped off just because of some con artist. (Focus Group, E2) In a similar vein, sellers might opt to investigate the transaction history or current bidding behaviour of bidders who’ve won their auctions, in order to, for example, assess the ‘seriousness’ of the bidder in terms of their likelihood to pay, particularly if the bidder is tardy in submitting their payment. As the following Blog entry reveals, if payment isn’t received, then sellers might check the payment status of the buyer’s other winning bids (by contacting the other sellers they’ve dealt with or are currently dealing with): I've still not heard from the girl who bought my sapphire ring on Sunday, I am not sure what the time difference is in the Netherlands but I am sure she would have read my invoices by now. I have checked to see what else she bid on that day, and she did win another item, I wonder if she's paid for that yet, I will leave it until Sunday and contact that seller and see if he's heard from her. I sometimes do this, 9 times out of 10 if they haven't paid you, they haven't paid for other wins that day, some people get carried away with bidding and don't realize how much money they are spending. (Valerie, vintage jewellery seller, Blog, 28th July 2005) For some respondents in our study, the rewards associated with eBay, in terms of its affective experience, were seen to ‘matter’ too much - accounts of excessive use were reported, and a number of reasons why, were suggested. Although such reports came from both buyers and sellers as well as ‘newbies’ and ‘old-hands’, new users were particularly seen to offer subjective accounts of feeling addicted32: “I'm relatively new to e-bay but am also an addict. I just love it and can't walk past my computer without having a 'quick' look to see what is going on with my account…I get a real kick out of it” (Louise, questionnaire). For some, the ‘intensity’ of the eBay experience proved to be its most addictive aspect. Specifically, especially where eBay ‘newbies’ were concerned, ‘the rush’ often experienced when bidding made the eBay experience unique, unlike that associated with offline shopping or even other e-commerce portals. Regards this consideration, addiction expert David Notts reports that, “while shopaholism has been recognised as a problem for years … eBay addiction is different 32 Although the term ‘addiction’ was utilised on a number of occasions, in our study no subjective accounts of ‘addiction’ mirrored accounts of eBay addiction, which are proving newsworthy, especially since The Priory Clinic in London, which normally treats celebrities for drug and alcohol addictions, have turned their hand to eBay addiction, at a reported £500 per night. © 2006, University of Essex Page 147 of 198
  • 148. because of the combination of shopping and gambling which makes it so compelling and potentially more addictive” (Veitch, 2005). MB: The main thing that attracted me, and it’s happened since I started using it, is like a total rush, when I bid on something. A: So have you watched the end of auctions then? MB: Yeah. A: So, you watch at the end and you get a real rush from it? MB: Yeah, it’s great. That’s easily the best part. That’s why I’d go back and do it again. (Focus Group, M4). Although, in our study, no accounts of addiction ventured into the realms of being a ‘disabilitating problem’, as the following edited excerpt from Espinosa (2002) reveals, the potential exists for such euphoric reactions to culminate in eBayers paying the price for bidding in addictive proportions: “Although late-night, bleary-eyed bidding is, for the most part, a necessary ‘evil’, mandated by eBay's system, some users report feeling obsessed with ‘winning’ the item (as eBay calls it). And in some cases these competitive urges shade into something like an addiction. Matthew is a 36-year- old chiropractor who believes he is addicted to the site: […]” At first, I thought it was all fun […] [but] what started as a fun 15-dollars-here-and-there hobby turned into hours of bidding and hundreds of dollars spent on old movies”. With auctions providing a unique experience, it was reported that eBay had opened up ‘the thrill’ associated with an auction format, to those who might otherwise have not experience it: “Yeah, that’s a fact. It’s rather enjoyable on eBay, you know, it’s like being at an auction house - people like myself, we don’t get an opportunity to do that, and so there’s a certain kind of thrill, I suppose - bidding against other people out there, you don’t see […] I mean, I enjoy it, I really do” (Neil, stamp and cover collector). Moreover, unlike traditional, offline auctions, which may be regarded as daunting for some, eBay was regarded to have made the auction experience accessible and inviting through the relative ease and smoothness it affords, from browsing to fulfilment of one’s transaction (i.e. getting the items). For Christine, a collector of First Day Covers and Royal Doulton, it was this positive experience that got her ‘hooked’ right from her first encounter: “I browsed for only a short time. I collect Royal Doulton figurines and decided to purchase one to see how eBay worked. The transaction went very smoothly and I was hooked” (Christine, stamp collector). © 2006, University of Essex Page 148 of 198
  • 149. A positive eBay experience in terms of the quality of goods offered was also cited by one previously sceptical eBayer, as a factor that got him hooked. As a collector of English Metamec clocks, this respondent initially tried eBay as an experiment, based on a suggestion by his partner, with the expectation that item quality would be terrible, especially given the relatively low price: […] I don’t know why, my partner… We both love antiques and had a couple of antique clocks, and for some strange reason, I don’t know what possessed him but he said, he says to me one day: ‘You know, I looked at eBay, and you know, they sell clocks on eBay, and they’re quite reasonably priced.’ And I didn’t believe him - I thought they’d be rubbish. Until we looked at it, um, and we bought a clock, as a joke. And expected it to be just complete rubbish, and we won it for like £4 or something, paid £4 to have it delivered. And it turned up, it was fantastic, we were so shocked. It even worked. It was in good condition. And I remember the day we unpacked it in the kitchen, I still remember that day - thinking: ‘I can’t believe it.’ And I paid so little for it, and it actually was really interesting, and from that moment on we were hooked. And we now have 58 of these [group laughter]. (Focus Group, E3) Another participant from the same focus group reported being similarly ‘wowed’ by their initial eBay experience and, as a result, they began using eBay as a venue to satiate their appetite for Titian Ware: RM: ... so my very first purchase was actually an antique lamp. R: Yeah. RM: And, erm, I was completely wowed by the process, because I’d never thought about collecting antiques online, before. I can imagine it being used for other things, but not antiques. And I couldn’t even really believe that this was going to be an antique - I thought it would arrive and it would be something kind of tacky. R: Yeah. RM: And it wasn’t. It was fantastically packaged and it was this beautiful thing. And I got it for next to no money. And it’s this wonderful Deco lamp, you know, because I wanted it to fit in with the period of the university, kind of thing. R: Yeah. RF: And I was just so impressed by that first experience. Yeah. R: You used it quite a lot after that? RM: Yes, yeah. And, actually, I collect, erm, Titian [Ware] china. And, er ... So I, you know, I collected quite a few pieces of Titian from all around the world. I’ve imported it from the States since then, so, © 2006, University of Essex Page 149 of 198
  • 150. yeah. (Focus Group, E3) Due to eBay largely having an auction format, ‘time is of the essence’. Indeed, extended buy-it- now listings aside, “items are continuously listed and auctioned off, with seller-specified auction lengths of [1,] 3, 5, 7, or 10 days” (Dewan and Hsu, 2001: 8). Accordingly, with eBay fostering feelings of anticipation for that ‘perfect elusive item’, one can partially attribute fervent visits to eBay, to interested parties aiming to keep abreast of listings, in order to find and bid on desired items before their window of opportunity expires: I'm not too sure why e-bay is so addictive. It's got nothing to do with monetary gain or even acquisitiveness but much to do with … the anticipation of the perfect object/work of art suddenly appearing before my eyes on screen. E-bay has created almost endless theoretical possibilities. Disappointments are soon forgotten when one considers e-bay's reach. (Derek, e-mail) With such considerations in mind, Frederic, one of our First Day Cover collectors, indicated a ‘landmark’ moment when he found himself needing to consult eBay whilst on holiday: F: No, I was pretty addicted anyway. It doesn’t really… It’s more a piece of trying… the connection speed didn’t really make any difference to me. I knew I had a problem when I took the computer away on holiday, and I was looking at eBay on holiday [laughter]. That was quite a landmark thing. R: Oh goodness. F: I have to take my computer on holiday anyway, for business reasons, um, there are some things I have to keep an eye on when I’m away, and it was when I was starting to veer off work, looking at auctions on eBay, that I realised - stop that. (Frederic, stamp and cover collector) Commenting in terms of their own experience or that of acquaintances, other respondents similarly reported the increasing ‘draw’ of eBay, and the feelings of ‘exhilaration’ experienced. Our data revealed reports of unprecedented levels of purchasing, mediated through eBay’s 24/7 ‘opening hours’, and the joy associated with receiving what is often an accumulation of items through the post: “All my friends are taking the piss out of me, a lot, because every time they come round there is kind of more…I’m getting boxes of stuff delivered - there’s two or three boxes on the doorstep when I come home, and I get all excited” (Focus Group, E2). Accompanying some reports, however, were accounts that indicated certain ‘downsides’ to excessive purchasing through eBay. On occasion, comments reflected Morrison’s (1999, cited in LaRose, 2001) observation that the excitement or © 2006, University of Essex Page 150 of 198
  • 151. thrill of the auction may encourage the purchase of items that bidders later regret or cannot afford. One report in particular, from Keith, one of our stamp and cover collectors, highlighted that the thrill of the auction may be encouraging eBayers to bid on things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase: “The thrill of the auction was getting me to buy them and I suddenly realised that, oh no, why did I buy this?”. Richard, one of our radio collectors, reported on the experience of a work colleague whom he regarded as an ‘obsessive’ eBayer user, due to the amount of time they spent on eBay (for buying and selling) and the shear volume of items they’d accumulated: “I only know one freelance person where I work, and I see him quite frequently. He uses eBay a lot, both for buying and selling. In fact I think obsessively, because he’s almost had to move out of his home or find somewhere bigger because of the collection”. In such instances, where impulse purchases are becoming more frequent, propelling the eBayer along a continuum of increasingly ‘unregulated purchasing’ (Nataraajan and Goff, 1991, cited in LaRose, 2001), LaRose (2001) argues that the consumer’s motivation appears to be shifting from the desire to purchase a specific product towards a desire for the buying process, per se. Regards this buying process, eBay efficiently mediates this, not only in terms of providing relatively easy access to items and fostering temptation through e-mail alerts (e.g. new listings from a ‘favourite seller’33 and items similar to those not won) but also in terms of actually paying for items through electronic payment mechanisms such as PayPal, which have become part of the eBay culture: “It just seemed to be the thing to do, you know. There’s a button there saying ‘Paypal.’ This is what people do” (Focus group, 4M). Arguably, the ease of completing transactions through PayPal especially since its synchronisation with eBay, further adds to eBay’s draw, acting to open up and extend the ‘world of eBay’ beyond the realms of one’s own country, providing even more diversity and range in terms of tempting items. As the leader in the micro-payment domain (Gonzàlez, 2003), PayPal is a particularly important for mediating international buying and selling, especially where different currencies operate. For 33 To encourage eBay sellers to establish a marketing strategy, whilst still operating within eBay’s boundaries, eBay has introduced an e-mail marketing facility, which can used by sellers with an eBay shop, to promote themselves and foster relationships with members from the wider eBay community. In particular, to encourage new bidders and encourage repeat business, the scheme allows buyers to sign up to receive e-mails from sellers they have added to their Favourite Sellers list. Sellers can then create up to five e-mail mailing lists that target different subscribers based on their interests and purchase history - buyers choose which mailing lists they belong to when they sign up. © 2006, University of Essex Page 151 of 198
  • 152. eBay sellers, there is less hassle in exchanging currency or trying to cash foreign cheques, which saves both time and money: “I’m quite happy to pay for that privilege, as I say, particularly when someone’s buying from abroad. You know, it’s no hassle at all. In the past I’ve had people send me foreign cheques and things, I’ve either had to go either up to the local airport, and there exchange bureau, or into the town. And it costs me money. Whereas with PayPal, I just get a notification of the amount I asked for in sterling. So, there’s no hassle at all” (Derek, radio collector). Similarly, for buyers involved in international transactions, adopting methods other than PayPal incur user costs, amounting to an “inordinate amount of faffing about and expense” (Robin, radio collector questionnaire). Moreover, on occasion, money may not flow internationally if PayPal is not accepted: “I usually only buy if they accept PayPal. On one occasion, I sent 20 euros, but would only send cash for small amounts. Unfortunately few sellers in Europe accept PayPal. This is because a lot fewer people have credit cards and generally mistrust them. I was told this in reply to a question about this on a German forum” (Nigel, radio collector, questionnaire). For both buyers and sellers, PayPal is often seen to represent the payment method which involves the least ‘hassle’. Many eBay buyers report disliking the effort involved in writing a cheque and enclosing notification of the item number and their address: “So, I can sort of understand why they do it, and sometimes, if someone’s going to charge a PayPal surcharge, I work out how much that is, and if it’s more than the cost of a stamp, I’ll send them a cheque and pay by cheque, but if it’s comparable - if it’s about 30p extra to pay by PayPal, then I’ll do that because it’s quicker, and less hassle than having to write a cheque and go and post it” (Focus group 3M). Because I’m a buyer only at the moment, I only like using PayPal. Because I’m lazy, I’m just so lazy, I don’t normally get the cheque book out and the effort of writing a cheque [group laughter], and you have to write a little note to go with it, you know, because it’s just too rude not to. At least you have to say: ‘This is in respect of.’ Even that’s five minutes work. You know. Alternatively, I just press the PayPal button, fantastic. And it gets to them immediately. (Focus group 3E) Additionally, using Paypal removes reliance on the postal system to forward the cheque to the seller and waiting for the cheque to clear – PayPal offers the immediacy that people require in terms of helping them get their item quickly: “And then you realise, ‘hold on, I was buying this because I want to get it soon,’ but in reality I’ve got to send off a cheque, and then wait for the cheque to clear, and then © 2006, University of Essex Page 152 of 198
  • 153. for them to come back - and then not getting it for ages. But once you’ve got PayPal, it’s nice and fast” (Focus group 1E). Similarly, sellers also prefer eBay from the point of view of receiving payment quickly and not having to take a cheque to the bank – the effort involved in sending a cheque signals a delay in being paid. PayPal is also considered an ‘appropriate’ means of payment for electronic trading: “when you’re in the electronic world, I can’t for the life of me see why people can’t remain in the electronic world, and use PayPal or other electronic means of payment” (Richard, radio collector). However, the fact that people can complete PayPal transactions by drawing funds from credit cards, affords a negative side of excessive eBay use, namely, potential increases in personal debt and overspending. Indeed, as one of our radio collector notes, it is easy to overspend with PayPal as compared to taking cash to a swapmeet: “And it’s so easy to think, ‘Oh yeah, they’re doing Paypal, I’ll bid on that, bid on that, I’ll just put it on the credit card’ and it’s a danger, whereas I suppose with a swap meet you can go along armed with a couple of hundred pounds in cash and say right, you know, I’ve got £100 I can most definitely spend, there’s up to 150 if there’s something really good, but that thing I really what I’ve got my money back up money and when it’s gone, that’s it” (Philip, radio collector). One of the focus groups, which consisted entirely of students, also reported PayPal’s (and eBay’s) role in personal debt: I think we have to be careful with systems like PayPal, because I’ve read a lot of things about credit card debt. You know I think it could cause people an awful lit of trouble, especially when it’s just ‘click.’ I’m friends with a first year student at a college in G_________, who has been a regular eBay user for several months. He’s bought lots of things, including almost completely useless pieces of junk, and spent a lot of money on there, mainly through PayPal. Um, and has got himself in an awful lot of debt, already in his first year. Um, and whilst I’m not a credit card user, he is, and has gone over his Barclaycard credit limit, which then gets him fined as well. (Focus group 1E) Arguably, a situation where buyers are ‘addicted’ to eBay is going to be, to some extent, welcomed by both sellers and, ultimately, eBay themselves. However, as this quote from Arthur, who sells vintage radios on eBay, attests, there can be a slightly uneasy feeling that for some bidders the eBay experience can be almost likened to ‘gambling’: A: I think it’s nice to have somebody obsessive, buy your stuff, I’d like them to buy mine, but it’s worrying - you wonder how many other people are like this. It’s almost, it’s a gamble. It’s like gambling really in a way - I wonder how long it will be before we set up eBay anonymous. R: You think it’s an addictive thing? © 2006, University of Essex Page 153 of 198
  • 154. A: I think it already is for many people. I think they’re just absolutely compulsive, they just can’t keep up with it. I think once you get into it, and especially once you put a bid on something, you look to see how it’s doing, and it’s just one of those things, isn’t it. It’s great fun. (Arthur, radio collector, interview) Even sellers in our study discussed the thrill of eBay, providing analogies to gambling. Indeed, Veronica, who began her ‘eBay life’ as a seller following a recent house move, revealed having to regularly check her eBay auctions motivated by the potential ‘thrill’ of seeing people bidding on her items, particularly where bid prices exceeded the item’s original cost: Well when I had things for sale I used it everyday, and it, you know, erm … went in for the thrill, you know, almost like a gambling sort of thing. I don’t gamble on the web, but I suspect this is what they feel when they win. Because when I sort of sell something and there’s all disappointment because there’s no bids. And then suddenly you think maybe I have some, and you do have some, and it’s fantastic - it’s a great rush. And you think, three bids, you know, eleven quid for something that you bought for six-fifty, you know. So, you think eleven is great. So, I went there, you know, three times a day, maybe. One in the morning when I logged in, you know, then, sort of, one before the break and then one at night. (Veronica, Focus Group, M1) In our study, reports of an ‘eBay compulsion’ were often accompanied by comments indicating a need to reduce or put a halt to one’s eBay activities. For example, in one of our focus groups, Rea commented that, rather than merely decreasing her eBay visits and/or reducing the number of items they bid on, she almost wished to stop visiting eBay, period. However, the ease of eBaying whilst doing other activities such as watching television was ‘feeding’ her desire to investigate the items available: “Erm, well because I went mad and bid on lots of things, sort of simultaneously […] And, I think, I’m hoping I’ll stop soon rather than just reduce it [laughs]. I probably go on there every other day, at the moment, just while I’ve been watching telly or whatever. Just kind of sitting in the corner” (Rea, Focus Group, E2). Another participant, who had experienced a phase of ‘severe addiction’ (partly fuelled by having a friend who was likewise ‘addicted’), reported undergoing a lengthy period of ‘weaning’ herself off eBay, towards an acceptable level of eBay activity: “…it was literally just DVDs [at] first … and I went through a severe addiction phase and it took quite a while to wean myself off it” (Martlesham, FG 2). Although differing between people, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is often some notion of an ‘acceptable quotient’ of eBay activity, which may be multi-factorially defined. For example, © 2006, University of Essex Page 154 of 198
  • 155. one of our focus group respondents, who exclusively bought on eBay, indicated that an acceptable level of activity was related to financial concerns and, as such, was relatively flexible: “The first week … you know, I was completely addicted. But now I’ve realised that as I’ve just gone onto part- time wages I need to get a handle on this and not spend so much, So, I’m being quite restrained at the moment, but as my wages are due this week this could well change” (Focus Group M1). The following edited account from John Marr (1999), a self confessed ‘out and proud’ eBay addict, provides a good summary of the ‘heady experience’ associated with eBay and some of the associated pitfalls. In particular, Marr’s (1999) description highlights the pleasure of being able to browse an overwhelming array of “arcane items that you've been hunting for months, if not years”, by “distilling the contents of a thousand junk shops into one almost pure page of a specialty store”. Marr’s account also highlights that the ‘costs’ associated with excessive eBay use, extend beyond a barren bank account: I'm an eBay addict. It started innocently enough. A few friends told me about this great website where you could find all kinds of neat old junk. And it wasn't the electronic equivalent of the local antique collective, where dealers, living in absolute horror of anyone ever finding any kind of a bargain, slap $20 price tags on any book published before 1975. It was an auction site. Sellers put stuff on the electronic block. Potential buyers bid. And courtesy of the electronic invisible hand, the authority of hundreds of so-called "Official Price Guides" was decimated. Adam Smith would be proud. So I logged on to eBay. At first, I was staggered by the sheer volume of crap […] There was everything from bootlegged computer software to Franklin Mint-style pseudo-collectibles. […] At least the prices seemed sane (one of the cheap pleasures of eBay is watching the neglect of items with ridiculously high listed minimum bids). But finding the good stuff seemed problematic. Scrolling through a junk shop 50 items at a time is no way to shop no matter how fast your connection is. Then I discovered the search function. I was lost forevermore. eBay combines the appeal of the grungy… garage sale with the convenience of keyword searching. Toss in the frequent illusion (and occasional realization) of a bargain and the heady passion of the auction. The resulting combination is lethal for anyone who has difficulty passing up a thrift store. […] for all you compulsive collectors, passionate packrats, junkstore junkies: welcome to your Skinner Box. […] © 2006, University of Essex Page 155 of 198
  • 156. [If] you know exactly what you're looking for, a quick search through eBay is like distilling the contents of a thousand junk shops into one almost pure page of a specialty store. […] eBay is like a mall, complete with a specialty store catering to the most arcane collectors. Suddenly, it's not how much you can find--it's how much you can afford. Collectors are not known for their discipline or restraint. It's easy to wake up one day to discovery your previously healthy bank balance has been transformed into a mushrooming accumulation of alarm clocks, beer signs, or tiki mugs. There are bargains to be had on eBay. But it's also quite easy to get sucked into paying more than you wanted by the heat of the auction. Bidding can get bloody… […] Who, caught in the grips of lust for stuff, can let a single measly dollar get between them and the object of their desire? Not me. When eBay emails me the dreaded notification that I have been outbid, I consider it a call to arms. Damn the budget. I must counterattack and up my maximum, repeatedly if necessary. For crucial auctions, I've been known to hover over my computer in the waning moments, ready to respond or stealthily sneak in that last minute bid that takes the field. If I fail--and sometimes sanity does prevail--there is the consolation of knowing I drove the price up for the other guy. If I succeed, well, at least I wind up with some pretty cool stuff, even if it means paying $30 for something that, at first bidding, I thought was only worth $15. This is why I find myself in an apartment rapidly filling up with old magazines, cheap rusty alarm clocks, and other assorted debris of days gone by. My checking account is barren, my hand is developing mouse-related carpal tunnel syndrome. The mail guy at work is getting visibly pissed as the packages arrive on an almost daily basis. I am an eBay addict. And I'm proud of it. Marr’s comment that “who, caught in the grips of lust for stuff, can let a single measly dollar get between them and the object of their desire?” and his concluding paragraph, reveal another pitfall of eBay use, often referred to as ‘bidding frenzy’. The term ‘emotional bidding’ is also often used, given the argument that this type of “bidding is not totally rational [as] people develop an emotional tie with the product after participating in the bidding phenomenon for a while” (Kumar and Feldman, 1998: 11): “Because in an auction, I think, people are … there’s one or two people that make some silly bids” (Keith, stamp and cover collector). ‘Bidding frenzies’ or ‘emotional bidding wars’, therefore, are events that auction sellers dream about — “two or more bidders start running up © 2006, University of Essex Page 156 of 198
  • 157. the price of a listed item because they get caught up in the excitement of the moment” (Feiring, 2005). In reference to ‘biding frenzies’, which Häubl and Popkowski Leszczyc (2003, cited in Popkowski Leszczyc, n.d.) define as “a mental state characterized by a high level of arousal, a sense of competitiveness, and a strong desire to win”, these reportedly result from the dynamic competitive interaction between consumers (in open ascending-bid auctions). Once caught up in the bidding war, the intensity of the competitive interaction thus operates to affect a bidder’s valuation of the auctioned item, potentially leading to extreme cases such as that cited by Dr. Peter Popkowski Leszczyc: "Recently an unknown painting sold online for 70,000 pounds after some bidders started a bidding war. The actual painting was probably worth about 100 pounds” (Popkowski Leszczyc, n.d., cited in Science Daily, 2005). Specifically, Häubl and Popkowski Leszczyc (2003, cited in Popkowski Leszczyc, n.d.) contend that valuations become influenced by both the frequency of bids and the perceived number of bidders participating in the auction: the higher frequency of competitor’s bids and the smaller the perceived number of bidders, the higher the product valuation. In our study, the irrational nature of eBay biding was highlighted in a number of reports. For example, it was indicated that once emotionally committed to an item, bidders may pay ‘over the odds’ through not adequately investigating other avenues through which to source items: “But you watch something sometimes, and there’s two people going for it, and they could write to Benhams and buy a brand new one for a quarter of the price they’re paying, like. Um, they just seem to get carried away” (Gordon, stamp and cover collector). The same respondent also highlights instances relating to the ‘topical’ sale of collectable items on eBay, such as the sale of Concorde-related items following its last flight in 2003: “Because most of the recent silly ones, I call them silly ones … like last year with the Concorde. Everybody was doing Concorde covers. Um, I mean, the original 1969 first day covers, ad I’ve got about a dozen signed by Brian Trumpshaw. They were going for four or five hundred pound. Really silly, stupid money” (Gordon, stamp and cover collector). Although not exclusively the domain of the new bidder, anecdotal evidence and comments from participants suggest that new bidders may be especially susceptible to eBay’s ability to incite feelings of ‘exhilaration’ associated with the close of auctions, as previously discussed. Indeed, © 2006, University of Essex Page 157 of 198
  • 158. new bidders may watch the end of auctions, up-ing their bids as necessary (referred to as ‘nibbling’34), drawn into a ‘fight to the end’ with other who are also watching and bidding live. Of course, the heightened interest in an auction can also encourage even experienced eBayers to ‘bid-up’, as Arthur’s comments regarding a ‘common place’ book, highlight: “[…] you’ve got to be very careful […] I’ve seen things at the last minute, … ‘shall I just put another bid on?’, ‘shall I just put another bid on?’ You’ve got to stop. You’ve got to say you’ll let them have it, because there’s always going to be another one” (Arthur, radio collector). Typically, however, fervent bidding may be easier to resist where more ‘common place’ items are concerned. Regarding items perceived (either rightly or wrongly) as scarce, both experienced bidders and ‘newbies’ may get caught up in emotional bidding antics: “At auction I expect generally to pay less. However since the material I am looking for tends to be hard to find and expensive, not having a clear market value, I can get carried-away!” (Ernie, stamp collector questionnaire). “The same names pop up when you’re bidding on something, but you’ll find something you haven’t seen before and they go absolutely spare, and obviously seen it for the first time, and then bid, bid, bid. You think to yourself: ‘It’s not worth that’ and they go absolutely potty. And I notice that more and more, when there’s obviously more and more people bidding” (Focus Group, M2). Concerning the timing of bidding frenzies, observations of eBay are supported by comments from our participants, which highlight that the most fervent activity tends to occur in the concluding moments of the auction: … there are certain radios, and it will be the same for most other areas in other categories on eBay I guess, but certain radios have a cachet to them, and people want to buy them, more than others. So you find, for example, the circular shaped Ekco radios of the early ‘30s designed by Wells Coates, who was an avant garde architect, Wells Coates designed attractive radios for Ekco, made in bakelite. And these radios fetch over a £1000 each, and they’re really, technically, not very good. Because they look a little bit different, people want to buy them, and if you want one of those, you’ve no chance on eBay, because the money’s gone mad, absolutely mad. I’ve seen them bidding in the last few minutes, rapidly, and people going absolutely crazy. (Arthur, radio collector) 34 As defined by, ‘nibbling’ refers to the practice of ‘making repeated bids in an attempt to find / exceed the current highest bidders proxy’. © 2006, University of Essex Page 158 of 198
  • 159. Keeping the price down Alongside reports that “bargains on [eBay] now are harder to come by, because people are bidding too much” (Focus Group, M2), were accounts of tactics used by bidders in order to secure a better price. For example, fuelled by the desire to purchase items at a low price, many successful auction bidders employ a bidding strategy referred to as sniping – some reports estimate that sniping occurs on 5 percent of all eBay auctions that close with bids (Feiring, 2005). Snipers, who wait to place their bid until the concluding moments of the auction, sometimes in the last few seconds, can opt to manually submit their bids or they can employ one of the increasing numbers of automated sniping programs. Figure 65: The founder of eSnipe sold the company on eBay. The bid pattern reflected the increasing tendency for late bidding - with no bids occurring before the close date (see Appendix 7), the price was seen to rise by more than $10,000 in the last minute, during which time 4 of the 8 bids (6 unique bidders) were placed (Niederle, n.d.) Automated programs such ‘Bidnapper’ or ‘eSnipe’ (which was, itself, sold on eBay – see figure 65), submit bids on an eBayer’s behalf, in the last few seconds of the auction. The main benefit of such programs, in addition to the high level of accuracy they reportedly provide35, is that they remove the need for bidders to be online when the bid is set to close. Obviously, being tethered to one’s computer, in order to manually submit a snipe, can prove awkward, especially if the auction ends during work time or in the middle of the night, perhaps as a result of differing time © 2006, University of Essex Page 159 of 198
  • 160. zones. Sniping programs, therefore, can provide an alternative to ‘bidding and hoping’, which represented the ‘strategy’ used by one of our focus group participants who could only enjoy eBay access during work hours. This respondent, although aware of sniping’s reported benefits, was unaware that sniping could be done using dedicated programs: I can’t do that because they normally end at the weekend or at the end of week, and I can only access when I’m at work, which is Tuesday to Thursday. So, if I’m bidding on something I have to put a last bid in Thursday afternoon and then just hope. […] I think I’m learning about, kind of bidding techniques… I find that fascinating and, because I’m never around at the end of auctions, I can’t do the kind of sniping or the sitting online and putting in a bid at the last minute. (Focus Group, M1) Our study revealed a number of instances when bidders ‘missed out’ on auctions, due to auctions concluding at inopportune moments. For example, Wilf, one of our stamp and cover collectors, reported how his intention to be a contender was often blighted by problems with computer access. For this reason, he often preferred buy-it-now auctions, as they provide a more controllable ‘bidding window’ and, accordingly, positive feelings of ‘surety’. Arguably, if a sniping program had been used, Wilf’s access problems would have had no bearing on his auction chances. But it’s sometimes a lot easier to buy the Buy-it-now ones because you know you’ve got it. And when you can’t get on to the computer on a regular basis, you’ve got a surety. Whereas quite often I walk in, in the morning, and find ‘item lost’ because I haven’t been able to get in, in the last couple of minutes of bidding, or whatever. (Wilf, stamp and cover collector) Other respondents also indicated a preference for ‘buy-it-now’ listing, not just because of Internet access problems, like Wilf, but because auctions are ultimately seen as a ‘hassle’: “Yes, that’s a great function …buy-it-now. I would prefer to do that and spend a couple of quid more. [...] than just go through the hassle of an auction” (Focus Group, M1). Bidding and then having to wait, perhaps only to ultimately contend with a number of snipers, was also considered a salient issue: “I’d probably even ‘Buy-it-now’, actually. Just my experience of auctions - it’s a pain to wait […] you wait a few days and then get sniped” (Focus Group M2). 35 It is reported that sniping programs can boast a high level of accuracy - e.g. 99.93% bidding accuracy is reported on © 2006, University of Essex Page 160 of 198
  • 161. Arguably, akin to the affordance of sniping, buy-it-now auctions may be preferred as they similarly allow bidders to come from nowhere, in order to ‘snatch’ the auction away from others - effectively closing the bidding window to new or counter-bids. Moreover, as the above quote reveals, in auctions where both an auction format and buy-it-now options are presented, purchasing through buy-it-now can even ‘snatch’ the auction away from potential snipers. Essentially, just like with sniping programs, buy-it-now frees those who prefer manual sniping from the need to plan their life according to eBay end times: “… you don’t have to plan your life around for the end of auctions - it just does it for you and you can go out and get drunk” [laughs] (Focus Group E2). For example, as Karl commented in our student focus group, while he enjoyed the skill associated with manually submitting a late bid, he also indicated that this skill can sometimes be at the expense of being tied to one’s computer: KS: Well, actually, I try to go to the buy-now, where it’s just sort of like […] erm … that’s come because of, er, spending time having to wait around for the last second for these auctions. And sort of like having to actually plan my life to be at a computer, at a particular time [laughs]. AH: So you’re a manual sniper? […] KS: Yes, I actually saw one of these, er… Yes, I saw one of those software programs. I’d forgotten about it. I think I just sort of felt that it was, erm, I don’t know. […] You see, I wouldn’t use this software because the software is actually taking away from that skill. It’s like you’re not a hunter anymore - you are using a machine gun, or something [laughs].[…] there is all that skill, sort of like, knowing how fast your browser is going to refresh and … (Focus Group, E2) With sniping, the timeliness of one’s bid is crucial, and manual snipers may be penalised in terms of their last second bid being submitted too late (i.e. after the auction has closed) as a result their connection speed and internet service provider. Automatic sniping mitigates such connection issues, putting bidders at a level pegging with regards the timeliness of their bids - sniping programs have high-speed connections to the internet. As an additional benefit, automated sniping programs, in theory, allow bidders to set their highest bid and then they can forget the auction after the bidding has closed. Adopting such an approach, which hides your bid until the last few seconds of the auction, also eliminates (2005). © 2006, University of Essex Page 161 of 198
  • 162. emotional bidding wars between competing bidders - snipers can deliver fair, unemotional bids, not influenced by engaging in a bidding war with bidders who are willing to bid too much: PL: But [sniping]… stops me, like, getting into bidding wars with people and jacking the price up - I’ve done that on numerous occasions… KS: Oh yes [simultaneously]. PL: … and I end up paying double what I’d pay, as well, just because I got upset with this bloke who was trying to outbid me. ALL: [laughs]. PL: Yeah, it got personal. (Focus Group, E2) In the majority of cases, submitting a last-minute bid precludes competing bids, acting to assure a winning bid at the lowest price36. Arguably, of course, although this ‘stick to your price’ strategy works for the majority of items offered on eBay, rare one-of-a-kind auction items may discourage bidders from establishing a price early in the proceedings, when competing interest has not been evaluated and a potential ‘market value’ can not be gauged. Bidders may therefore ‘undervalue’ the item and lose it without the guide of other people’s private valuations (cf. Wilcox, 2000). Due to eBay’s auction style having a ‘hard close’, Roth and Ockenfels (2002) comment that sniping can be a best response to a variety of incremental bidding strategies – from the naïve incremental bidding strategies of inexperienced bidders who “continually raise their bids to maintain their status as high bidder” (Roth and Ockenfels, 2002: 1094), to other incremental bidding (or 'price war') behaviours such as ‘shill bidding’, where a dishonest seller raises the price by bidding against a true proxy bidder. Additionally, particularly concerning auctions of antiques or otherwise collectable items, snipers may be “dealers/experts … who are better able to identify high value antiques” (Roth and Ockenfels, 2002: 1095). By hiding their bid until the last possible moment, therefore, these individuals are effectively denying other bidders information concerning the value or desirability of the item in question. If an item has no bids or a (seemingly) limited number of bidders interested (as indexed by the number of bidders/bids submitted) this can make interested parties question the legitimacy of their interest, as our qualitative data supports: 36 For eBay auctions, bad deals (in terms of price) can be made on auctions with excessive buyer interest, and good deals can established where no other bid or minimal bids have occurred. © 2006, University of Essex Page 162 of 198
  • 163. “Something that you know is actually a good item, and you know it should have bids on it - doesn’t that worry you? If it’s something that’s a good product but it’s actually got no bids?” (Focus Group, E2). Accordingly, with out being able to glean such information from others’ bids, competing (or potential) bidders will not be encouraged to revise the notional amount they are willingness to pay. One of our radio collectors, named Arthur, adopted a late bidding strategy for such a reason: If I’m buying a radio, I think: ‘What’s my maximum,’ and I never put it on straight away, I wait ‘til the last few minutes otherwise people spot it and start to get on the trail. It’s almost like if you stand in the middle of the street and look up at the sky, you can guarantee before you leave that two more people are looking up. It’s almost like a magnet. It attracts people, they see bids going on and they want to put a bid in as well, even if they don’t want the damn thing, they want to bid for it. It’s a strange thing, it’s something compulsive. It’s like taking a gamble. It’s almost like a gambling thing. It’s like a disease really, it’s certainly a compulsion. […] I don’t think it’s about the goodness of an object that’s being sold or anything else. […] I certainly have to guard against it because you see it yourself, you think: ‘That looks like an interesting thing,’ two or three people have already done that. ‘It must be worth having this thing’. (Arthur, radio collector). As an alternative to sniping, eBayers who are experts in their collecting field might also obscure their interest in an item by, for example, adopting a user ID that is not known amongst members of their collecting community. During focus group discussion, Laura highlighted this, using the example of a family member who collected and sold collectable pottery: […] they think well if he’s bidded on it, it must actually be a bargain, it must be worth something. So he’ll actually use one of his anonymous ones, so that people don’t realise. […] Well say there’s something on that is at a reasonable price, his theory is, if other collectors see that he’s bidding on that, then it must be (a) the genuine article, it must be a bargain, it must be worth it. Therefore, if he’s bidding on it, they’ll have a go as well, and that pushes his price up (Focus Group, M2). To conclude this discussion on sniping, it is worthy of note that, as a bidding technique, sniping is not without controversy. Despite concerns, mostly from disgruntled sellers or bidders (who may have lost auctions to competing snipers), the practice is permitted on most online auction sites including eBay. Obviously, auction sellers are attracted to eBay by the prospect of a broad venue for their products and the possibility of high profits resulting from emotion-driven bidding wars. Accordingly, one can assume that sellers will not be enamoured by sniping’s potential to keep © 2006, University of Essex Page 163 of 198
  • 164. final prices down – on eBay, everyone gets the chance to submit their maximum bid, but the fact is that, under the current system, people don’t tend to do this. On eBay, to alert members to the concept of sniping and encourage bidders to always submit the absolute maximum they are willing to pay, eBay includes the following entry in its Help pages, highlighting that ‘sniping’ is not a practice that their investigations department will investigate. Bid Sniping (last minute bidding) We always recommend bidding the absolute maximum you are willing to pay for an item. eBay uses a proxy bidding system, so you may bid as high as you wish, but the current bid that is registered will only be a small increment above the next lowest bid. The remainder of your Maximum Bid is held, by the system, to be used in the event someone bids against you. As highlighted in Feiring’s article (2005), to reiterate the fact that, contrary to popular belief, eBay has no rule against sniping, an eBay Community Development representative from posted the following on eBay’s community pages: Figure 66: eBay’s position on ‘sniping’ – a posting from an ‘eBay Community Development’ representative, drawn from’s message boards (cited in Feiring, 2005). Sniping is often discussed on eBay’s community board. Entries to a recent discussion on’s Business Selling Board (thread expired), reveal potential differences between buyers and sellers concerning the ‘sniping user experience’. For example, the following post, which originates from an eBayer buys and sells, reveals that sniping can facilitate ‘bargain prices’ due to © 2006, University of Essex Page 164 of 198
  • 165. competitors having literally no time to react to the sniped bid. By definition, therefore, a less optimal experience in terms of a lower end price is awarded to the seller. Figure 67: Entry from’s Business Selling Board, which reveals ‘mixed feelings’ to sniping as a bidding practice (circa December 2005 – thread expired). The above comment, “I have seen sniping bids overtake less experienced amateurs whom I believe would have welcomed an opportunity to raise their bid”, reveals an oft cited assumption about sniping; that people often opt to snipe, based on their experience. In our study, some support for this statement was given - some respondents reported a move to submitting late bids, after the increasing realisation that incremental bidding is not the best strategy: J: At the minute I do sort of go in at the end. I have sort of learnt, you know, if you keep bidding throughout, then sometimes you don’t get things for the best price. If you wait to the end, then you tend to get them quite good, so, I do wait until the end now. R: So at the beginning, you didn’t do that? J: No, and lost quite a few things. (Jeffrey, stamp and cover collector) In our study, statements in opposition to this assumption were also provided. Indeed, other respondents chose not to snipe, even though they were aware of the practice, perhaps having been outbid by a sniper or through people sniping their auctions: “I haven’t used a sniper, I’ve been aware of someone using it on my auctions, and I had a look at their website, but I haven’t tried to use it… It’s quite entertaining. There’s nothing I’m that desperate for that I’d use one of those to get it” (Focus Group, M3). In another of our focus groups it was indicated that, although some eBayers have not sniped so far, they may not always be confirmed non-snipers, given that the practice was found interesting – “it depends”: …I have been outbid by lots of people, who have done that, and it’s kind of quite interesting learning about ... and about the sniping programs that automatically put in a bid at the last minute for you, automatically. It is quite interesting - I don’t know if I’d use them, it depends. (Focus Group, M1) © 2006, University of Essex Page 165 of 198
  • 166. Rather than finding sniping ‘interesting’, some eBayers hold quite strong reactions to the practice. The following post (see figure 68), this time from, reveals that sniping can evoke quite strong reactions in bidders, especially those new to the system who may be unaware of the practice, until losing out to a sniper: Figure 68: This posting from, reveals that sniping can evoke some quite strong reactions from fellow eBayers (thread expired). In this instance, after investing time in a given listing, the poster’s hopes were ended by competition from sniped bids. The first reply to this poster, presented below (figure 69), acted almost like a taunt, ending with a comment suggesting that eBaying is a skill to be mastered, and that this zero feedback bidder had a lot to learn. This reply post seemed to set the scene for a barrage of similar posts and comments such as “snipers don't suck! They're just smart bidders!!”, acting to both advise and reprimand this bidder (or ‘nibbler’ as some posters called them). Figure 69: A taunting response to the posting in figure 68, which suggests that the original poster has ‘much to learn’, as, ultimately, they didn’t win the auction, as they didn’t submit a high enough bid in the first place. In our study, the concept of sniping was mentioned on a number of occasions, with mixed perspectives being presented. In discussions which centred on sniping, a number of motivations © 2006, University of Essex Page 166 of 198
  • 167. for sniping were highlighted, some of which mirror the benefits already discussed. For example, reflecting the main premise for sniping, typically presented on the websites of sniping operators, financial motivations were highlighted on a number of occasions. Although the tendency (to snipe) was typically fostered though increasing eBay experience, one of our respondents reported sniping at the outset, due to the realization that a better price could be achieved, if counter-bids were discouraged: […] I just thought with an auction that was the way you did it, you waited until you saw what the bidding was and you think: ‘I’ll happily pay a pound more.’ So you wait until the last few minutes and you put your bid in.’ And I thought: ‘I’m not going to push the price up.’ You know because if I bid on Monday, and it’s not going to be selling until the Sunday, and that person’s going to come back on Tuesday and add another pound to it, I’ll just leave it as a pound until five minutes to go, and then put my £11.93 in. And it will go for two quid. (Focus Group, E3) In terms of sniping programs, the convenience afforded by such systems was also highlighted by a number of respondents. For example, Laura, who declared herself to be an occasional sniper, commented that, in the days before she used a sniping program, her bidding tended to be restricted to auctions ending at a reasonable time : “And I just used to put maximum bids on, and only bid on things that finished at reasonable times. But, if there’s something that I really desperately want that finishes at an unreasonable time then I ask my expert [an experienced eBay maven] to give me the name of a good sniper, and then I’ll bid on it” (Focus Group, M2). Despite, in theory, sniping offering negative consequences for sellers, in terms of a lower final price, one seller in our study reported that, even when sniping occurred in their auctions, they found the practice somewhat ‘fascinating’ and, on occasion, amusing, especially when a sniper comes from nowhere to put an end to the hopes of ‘nibblers’ who opt to battle it out, right to the very end: I’ve actually had people buy things off me, they bought it off me like two seconds before the auction closes. In fact, on dull winter weekends, we’ve sat in the study having a fab time, watching people sniping on things we’ve sold. We’re really fascinated by it. I remember one thing I sold, where there were three people who wanted this item, and they were having this incredible battle with it, and then literally three or four seconds before the end, someone else came in completely new [group laughter]. We were shrieking! I mean it’s so sad, isn’t it. We were just so… I remember another time, we did it © 2006, University of Essex Page 167 of 198
  • 168. ourselves and I forgot to press the button. It was this clock which we really wanted. And we were shrieking that day, as well, going round the house and shrieking: ‘Oh no! (Focus Group, E3) The final thread in the above quote reveals a failed foray into sniping, which was light-heartedly received, despite a strong desire to win the target item. This comment arguably provides further support for the convenience afforded by sniping programs, previously highlighted, in that, once a maximum bid is submitted to a sniping program the potential for human error in submitting one’s bid is removed. Indeed, as offered by Richard, one of our radio collectors, the reliability of sniping programs takes away the burden of remembering to bid: ‘…I use… I do it for a couple of reasons - firstly I can’t forget. Secondly I’ve found it very reliable. [A]lthough I’ve got Broadband, and Sky have got an even faster connection, I’m never too confident about leaving it quite so close ‘til the end. I wouldn’t leave it more than 20 seconds to the end, if I were to do it manually. Whereas I’m quite happy to use a six second buffer on e-snipe, which I find very reliable” (Richard, radio collector). With regards preferences for either manual or sniping programs, while some comments mirrored that of Richard, a devotee of sniping programs – “I would never place a bid during the auction. I actually use a sniping website, which will bid between four and six seconds before the end” (Richard, radio collector) – others reported that electronic sniping can take the fun out of the auction: “I think sniping [programs] take all the fun out of it, actually…I like that feeling: ‘Yes, I’ve got it!’ If you get it with a piece of software - right, OK...” (Focus Group, M3). Others, still, reported their move from manual sniping to sniping programs. Despite distinctions such as this, one cannot argue, however, that snipers fall neatly into one of the two available camps (manual sniping vs. sniping programs). Additionally, even though some respondents declared themselves confirmed snipers, it would be equally erroneous to always conclude that ‘once a sniper always a sniper’. For example, as our sample revealed, amongst eBayers there may be the tendency for sniping to occur as a factor of how much a bidder actually wants an item, or due to the item’s perceived availability on eBay: “…it just depends on how much you want it. It’s like, if there’s lots of them, I’ll tend to like, just bid on them. But if there’s just like only one of something, I tend to just ignore it until the very last second and use a sniping program” (Focus Group, E2). Additionally, as exemplified by the following quote, some people who tend towards sniping programs, may opt to manually snipe, on occasion, as this can be more fun, especially when their bid has ‘out-smarted’ an eBay newbie: “I don’t think my behaviour’s changed that much. I © 2006, University of Essex Page 168 of 198
  • 169. tend to snipe more really. I did a manual snipe the other day, and it was good fun actually - I did forget how much fun it is doing it yourself, and it’s great because I actually outbid a new eBayer [group laughter]. It wasn’t even on Broadband, which is harder to manually snipe” (Focus Group, M3). Here, it appears that, negotiating a manual snipe, in terms of timing and performing the necessarily screen refreshes, provides a certain sense of accomplishment and skill that cannot be exercised when using sniping programs. The following quotes from one of our focus groups, mirrors this sentiment: C: I prefer sniping by hand. It’s more fun. J: I must admit, I enjoy it, yeah. Get in there and you’re waiting and you have to do a refresh and you’re right… M: Those last 30 seconds are quite difficult aren’t they? (Focus Group, M2) In addition to comments indicating a partial return to manual sniping, were reports of a total abandonment of sniping programs. Indeed, here, the introduction of sniping fees was offered as a reason to either return to manual sniping or give up the practice altogether: “I used to use a sniper, but when they started sending me bills I thought: ‘I won’t do that anymore” (Focus Group, M2). The introduction of fees, however, was not the only discouraging factor, highlighted by our participants. Indeed, comments highlighted that some eBayers would never consider sniping an auction, especially using a sniping program, purely out of principle: “There’s a lot of people that are very snooty about bidding at the last minute and using sniping software, that’s considered to be a bit off key. Um, I think quite a lot of collectors frown on that” (Peter, radio collector). Concerns over security were also indicated as a reason to dissuade from the adoption of sniping programs. For example, in his interview, Brian expressed reservations over supplying his user ID and password, so bids could be submitted on his behalf. Essentially, he worried that breaches of security37 would put his eBay reputation at risk: “… um, I really didn’t like the idea of giving somebody else my username and password. That did not appeal to me at all. I thought, if I’m going to do that, maybe a new identity, or, you know. I sort of quite value the identity I’ve got on there - I’ve got a great deal of good feedback, and, you know, that makes for a lot of trust with people. So I didn’t want to put that at risk at all. I mean, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem. But I didn’t want to do it. Not with that ID” (Brian, radio collector). 37 Security breaches have been reported with sniping programs. For example, as reported in AuctionBytes by Steiner (2003c), some eBay members had their passwords compromised after the Slammer Worm (virus), which caused major problems for both large and small internet companies, attacked AuctionStealer’s system in February 2003. © 2006, University of Essex Page 169 of 198
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  • 188. Appendix 1 While usability alone does not create the optimal user experience, it is an essential and often expected feature of a good website, which - as defined by ISO14598, 99 - can be defined as ‘quality in use’. ‘Quality in Use’ The ultimate evaluation of quality is ‘fitness to purpose’, which means that means that, essentially, quality is not a measure of the software in isolation; it is a measure of the relationship between software and its domain of application. As the user is, by necessity, an essential part of this domain, so usability is a vitally important component of software quality (Andrés et al., n.d.). Indeed, usability, which represents a key component of trustworthiness (Egger, 2003), is a major factor that contributes to the success of an e-commerce site. Obviously, a system’s usability does not exclusively relate to the ‘look and feel’ of the user interface; it also relates closely to the software’s overall structure and to the concept on which the system is based. Usability Criteria Defined The definition of a usable system (based on Shackel 1975, cited in Sasse, 2004: 1) requires that: • The intended users can meet a desired level of performance operating it (task performance) • The amount of learning/practice required to reach that desired level of performance is appropriate (learnability) • The system does not place any undue physical or mental strain on the user (user cost) • Users are satisfied with the experience of interacting with the system For a better understanding of the concept of usability, and to contrast usability with trustworthiness, the concept of usability is further defined, below, highlighting the attributes into which usability can be decomposed. The following list of usability criteria – drawn from Lanford and Hübscher (2004) and Andrés et al. (n.d.) – is quite representative, reflecting the most © 2006, University of Essex Page 188 of 198
  • 189. frequently used criteria. Essentially, however, the emphasis of the criteria will differ depending on factors such as the goals of the site, user characteristics and the overall context. • Learnabiliy As the most important attribute for novice users, Learnability addresses how quickly and easily new users can begin to do productive work with the site, when it is new to them. For instance, how easy is it to figure out how to navigate the site or use the search engine? • Efficiency With its necessary link to the concept of learnability38, this addresses how quickly a task can be successfully accomplished. • Effectiveness This relates to the extent to which the intended goals of use are achieved, e.g. the accuracy and completeness with which users achieve specified goals. • Memorability (or rememberability) This refers to the ease of remembering the way a system must be operated. Does the user remember how to use the site or do they have to re-learn each time they visit. For instance, to remember where to find certain things, do users have to learn the site architecture anew? • Satisfaction The subjective opinion that users form about the system (or about some aspects or parts of it). As such, it addresses whether the user likes interacting with the site. “Satisfaction is the most elusive usability attribute, as it is completely dependant on subjective opinion of users” (Andrés et al., n.d.: 14). 38 “According to Nielsen, efficiency refers to an expert user’s steady-state level of performance at the time when the learning curve flattens out. Nielsen relates this attribute to progress in the learning curve, establishing a link with the concept of learnability” (Andrés et al., 2002: 13). © 2006, University of Essex Page 189 of 198
  • 190. • Error This addresses how well the site helps avoid user errors and supports the user to recover from any errors made. • Flexibility This attribute can be defined as adaptation to variation in tasks and/or expertise. Different modes of usage and access to functionality from different entrance points, presented via the user interface, can support desired levels of flexibility. For example, personalization supports shortcuts to frequently used tasks etc. • First impression This usability attribute relates to the user's opinion on the system after using it for a short period of time. Due to its subjective nature, it is an attribute as elusive as satisfaction. Although not strictly first impressions (of using the system), Nielsen (1993), specifies an approachability attribute. This closely related attribute concerns the initial impression formed by a potential user, with regard to system use, before actual use has taken place. © 2006, University of Essex Page 190 of 198
  • 191. Appendix 2 Overall, however, despite good intentions, eBay’s feedback system represents a hotbed of controversy with instances of feedback padding39, retaliation or extortion being reported (Steiner, 2003a). Looking at the incidence and perception of such issues, a survey conducted by AuctionBytes in January 200340 (Steiner, 2003a), revealed the following findings with respect to feedback retaliation and extortion: Feedback retaliation This is where, in response to a negative or neutral feedback rating or comment, the receiver will - without considering the circumstances or who’s at fault - do the same for you. 19% of respondents reported receipt of retaliatory feedback within the last 6 months, although: • 39% of respondents felt that it was a significant problem • 21% rated it a minor problem • 22% thought it was not a problem at all • (18% did not know) Feedback Extortion Where a seller or a buyer threatens to leave negative feedback in order to force a particular result – e.g. a buyer threatening to leave a negative feedback unless they get a discount on their purchase. 16% had been a victim of feedback extortion within the last 6 months, although: • 26% of respondents felt that it was a significant problem • 28% rated it a minor problem • 29% thought it was not a problem at all • (17% did not know) 39 Since changes to the eBay system in 2000, which prescribed that all feedback must be linked to a transaction, feedback padding is harder, it is still possible to hold sham auctions to build up a positive profile, by soliciting comments from friends, relatives or bogus accounts owned by the seller. Here, without any actual transaction taking place, the opportunity to leave feedback is granted for the mere cost of the eBay fees – these are typically low in such cases, as low cost items tend to be used for sham auctions. 40 The survey of readers of two free email newsletters, AuctionBytes-Update newsletter (online-auction buyers and sellers) and's The Collector's Newsletter (collectors), attracted 1,000 responses (Steiner, 2003a). © 2006, University of Essex Page 191 of 198
  • 192. Possibility a reflection of experienced or perceived problems with the feedback forum, the AuctionBytes (Steiner, 2003a) survey went on to reveal that reactions to eBay’s feedback forum were relatively mixed, with only 7% of respondents rating the feature as an excellent addition to eBay: • 29% of the respondents thought eBay's feedback system was fair or poor; • 35% thought it was adequate; • 29% felt the system was very good; • 7% rated it excellent © 2006, University of Essex Page 192 of 198
  • 193. Appendix 3 © 2006, University of Essex Page 193 of 198
  • 194. Appendix 4 © 2006, University of Essex Page 194 of 198
  • 195. Appendix 5 © 2006, University of Essex Page 195 of 198
  • 196. Appendix 6 © 2006, University of Essex Page 196 of 198
  • 197. Appendix 7 (Niederle, n.d.) © 2006, University of Essex Page 197 of 198
  • 198. Appendix 8