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Jul 17

eBay's search system is broken

The stereo in my car has no external input, making it difficult to listen to music on my Nokia N810. I have to resort to a slightly fuzzy FM transmitter that dangles around in the passenger footwell and occasionally needs retuning if I go for long drives through the country. I have a spare car stereo from a previous car, but because my car’s OEM stereo is an odd shape I’ll need a replacement fascia.

Thinking I could get a replacement I hit eBay…

That seems a sensible search term, I own a 2005 Panda and need a stereo fascia. Let’s see what comes up…

Well that’s fantastic! It found 39 items. Right, must be a bargain in here…

Wait, something is wrong…

Look at the search string, it’s been modified. And if you squint at the tiny bit of writing you see some curious search logic being applied. It turns out that if eBay can’t find results for your search query, they modify it and search for that instead, and then modify what you typed into the search box. How they modify the search is unknown. All we know is that they are now giving us results for something we didn’t ask for. I don’t want a new stereo for my car, I want a fascia for my car, but that vital, important, required keyword has been stripped off!

This is a fine example of a system second-guessing its users and getting it totally wrong. There is no way a search engine can guess what I mean, the best it can do is give me alternates that are likely, or let me set the context and narrow the searches down, which is what eBay is trying to do. Unfortunately it also then decides to totally erase my previous search leading to confusion. I bet like me you look in the search box to double-check your search criteria if the search doesn’t work.

If you do a similar search on Google and it spell checks or thinks you mean something else, a much better display is presented to the user:

As you can see, Google thinks it knows better, but rather than totally obliterating your mental map of what to expect, it notifies you of its suggestion but then gives you what you asked for. It’s up to the user to use the alternate.

And that’s the way eBay should work. Rather than second guessing me and giving me pages of cars, it should tell me the search failed and then offer a suggestion for me to click on. The clicking on part is important – it links an action to a consequence and is vital to preventing your users from becoming confused. Since don’t forget, confused users often get irritated and angry and then feel the need to tell the world about this using their blogs ;)

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