The Pitfalls of Ignoring eBay’s Level Playing Field

How Thinking Like Your Buyers Can Even the Score

Level Playing Field
Free image, courtesy of Flickr

This post offers an extensive discussion of the “level playing field” on eBay, as well as a simple methodology for making the most of it as a seller.


Since I first began working as an eBay SEO, I have encountered as many different kinds of sellers as I have types of products.

The majority of these individuals have been professional business people, often with their own ecommerce sites and Amazon accounts.

Usually these sellers can’t figure out why their eBay stores aren’t performing as well as their other platforms, and they come to us for analysis, recommendations, and sometimes hands-on optimization.

I enjoy my work in these situations, because we can almost always help a seller who is willing to listen.

But then there’s “the rest.”

As is the case with a lot of eBay SEO “experts,” these sellers generally think they know best — regardless of what it is they actually know.

These folks are not only hard to teach, they are hard to work with.  Period.

This post is dedicated to one such eBay seller.

And his blindness to a simple truth.


A man of letters

I once had the occasion to dialogue with an author who had a book on eBay.

Book and Glasses
Free image, courtesy of Pxhere

He was selling one product, an in-depth instructional manual in the field of firearms.  The work targeted a specific machine and its proper use.

The subject matter was such a niche market, that there were only a couple of other books about it on eBay.

According to the author, he was offering his readers specialized guidance not available elsewhere.  And he claimed he wasn’t receiving the sales numbers he deserved.

I took a look at the listing, and I readily discovered a number of fundamental issues with it.

For instance, the image he was using showed a computer-generated eBook cover instead of an actual book.  As the product was, indeed, a physical book, the photos were inappropriate and left buyers in the dark as to the item’s quality.

In addition, the listing template was one of those outdated, one-page minisites that used to litter the internet.  In spite of the fact that he described himself as “a professional copywriter and author” who needed “zero help with copy,” the description’s content was salesy, extremely lengthy, and just looked terrible.

And, as I mentioned earlier, he literally had only one listing.  I have found that it is extremely difficult to achieve high sales velocity on eBay with a single offering.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to communicate any of these findings.

The reason behind my silence was a disagreement over one basic concept:

eBay’s “level playing field.”


A place for all sellers

Last year, eBay SVP and General Counsel Marie Oh Huber wrote the following:

“At eBay, we believe that providing open, global, technology-enabled commerce platforms to independent small businesses and entrepreneurs, connecting them to millions of buyers around the world, empowers a people-driven kind of inclusive global commerce.”

Although they may not agree as to the company’s success in implementing “inclusive global commerce,” everyone can acknowledge that eBay is a marketplace where products are sold by every conceivable type of seller.

It is commonplace, for example, to see a “big box” seller’s listing directly adjacent to that of someone selling out of his basement.  Or a veteran small business seller’s product next to an obvious newbie.

eBay has created an environment in which it is possible for the smallest of sellers, at least in some instances, to compete against those with more experience, more inventory, and more resources.

I say, “in some instances,” because more of all those things does sometimes make a difference for larger sellers.

In a discussion about a glut of inventory in the t-shirts category on eBay, former eBay Vice President of Seller & Marketplace Operations, Bob Kupbens, admitted that “small sellers may or may not be able to compete with large sellers.”

But in spite of the significant exceptions, eBay still continues to provide a generally level playing field for sellers of all sizes.

As well as products of every quality.


“That’s not my market”

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to an eBay seller who hasn’t thought his / her merchandise was better than their competition.

Indeed, it was the subject of product quality that brought my discussions with the author-turned-seller to an abrupt end.

When I made my initial review of active listings on eBay, I had discovered a book that was particularly close to his own.

The titles were so similar, in fact, that I initially got them confused for each other.

When I presented the author with the competitor, he was quick to say the following:

“There are no other guides in this segment of the market…I’m not competing against other products because there is literally nothing on the market that describes how to optimize the use of these machines.  There are guides that give what you might call recipes for reloading, but that’s not my market.”

The fact was, both books were written about the same subject.  Their titles were made up of largely the same words.

But according to the author, his higher quality book went into such detail that it was in a class of its own.

So much so, that he considered his book to actually be in its own market.  As though he had no competitors.

It was this shortsightedness — even more than his multiple listing problems — that ensured his eventual failure.


“Your buyers don’t care”

Some sellers get so caught up in themselves and the self-assured belief in their products’ superiority, they fail to do the one thing that is absolutely essential to effective selling on eBay or any other marketplace.

To think as a buyer.

Here is a clip from my response to the author:

“You clearly have a very specific idea of what your market is, but your buyers won’t automatically understand that.  On eBay, whether you like it or not, you are competing with listings like this one.  I understand that you say your book is different, but your buyers don’t care.”

My initial analysis of the author’s listing and his competitor’s had plainly revealed buyers on eBay preferred his competitor.

Whether it was because his competitor’s book was cheaper in price, because it was clearly an established work, or because his own book was so poorly marketed, his competitor’s book was simply selling better than his.

Caught in the glare of his product’s nuanced differentiators, the author was completely unable to see this.

He couldn’t see things from his buyers’ point of view.

And it was killing his sales.


Embrace the competition

The one thing that shouldn’t be missed in this post is the very real possibility that the author’s book was actually that much better than his competitor’s.

If his book was as good as he said it was, then it should have sold for the significantly higher price he was asking for it.

And not only that, it should have attracted a higher segment of buyer than his competitor’s.

But the author wouldn’t even acknowledge that he had any competition, let alone that eBay’s buyers were inclined to overlook his book in favor of theirs.

Like it or not, every seller of quality products on eBay is competing with both higher and lesser caliber items than his / her own.

It doesn’t matter if your competitors are selling cheaply made products from China or even knockoffs of brand name goods.

If these sellers are drawing sales away from you, they are, in fact, your competitors.

I have worked with numerous sellers who understand this.

Even when the disparity in product quality is great, they find a way to embrace it and refocus their efforts on differentiating themselves from those they know to be in competition with them.

We’ve even managed this on several occasions with our own small, part-time eBay store.

But to do so, it requires a seller to stop thinking only like a seller.

And start taking his / her competitors more seriously.

So, go ahead.  Get out there and enjoy the level playing field.

Just don’t fall into the pits of your own making.

Keep your chin up.

About Dave Snyder 26 Articles
Dave is Founder & Chief Analyst at List Rank Sell. He began his intensive testing and study of eBay SEO in 2010, which eventually grew into a full-service agency dedicated to the practice. Dave has developed a methodology that embraces traditional search as well as technical SEO specific to eBay. Previously, he led a successful career as a tax analyst representing Cook County property owners.