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eBay Hacks

Selling with eBay's New Auction Page

by David A. Karp, author of eBay Hacks
09/09/2003

Editor's note: eBay Hacks addresses its 100 examples to four distinct audiences: "Hacks for All," "Hacks for Buyers," "Hacks for Sellers," and "Hacks for Developers." For more on the particulars of these distinctions, check out the full description of the book. In today's article, author David Karp targets eBay sellers. Whether you're a newcomer or a longtime eBay user, David's tips should help you with that primary reason for using the auction site--to bring in the cash.

Introduction

There's a great deal of comfort in familiarity. For example, I find solace in the knowledge that there's always a butter knife in the first drawer on the right, allowing me to stumble into my kitchen at 1 a.m. for a snack without having to undertake a full-scale utensil search. Move the knife--or worse yet, the drawer--and I'll spend many subsequent nights cursing the change, even if the new location is ultimately more convenient when I'm actually awake.

I find that computer software invokes the same feelings, which is, I think, why so many people are reluctant to upgrade (and give up all the bugs they've gotten used to in favor of a bunch of new ones). But visitors to web sites (web sites such as eBay) don't have that luxury; when a change is made to the site, it immediately affects everyone who uses it.

In July 2003, eBay completely redesigned its standard auction page, the page that shows the price, photos, description, and other details of any particular item you happen to be selling or bidding on. Some of the changes were significant improvements, such as the adaptive header block (see Figure 1) that shows different information to the seller than to, say, the high bidder, or to the unlucky bloke who was just outbid. Other changes, where seemingly important information was relegated to the bottom of the page, are a little harder to live with.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The layout of eBay's new auction page, and where to find the important stuff.

To bidders, some of the changes can be frustrating, at least until we get used to them. But to sellers, these changes can have much deeper repercussions. Take, for example, the fact that shipping and payment terms are now located beneath the auction description and photos, making them more difficult to find, especially by new eBayers. In this article, I will show you several approaches you can use to help communicate more effectively about your auction to your potential customers.

Related Reading

eBay Hacks
100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
By David A. Karp

Getting into the Heads of Your Customers

One of the banes of selling on eBay is that of deadbeat bidders: eBay members who bid on an item, win the auction, and never pay. But as described in eBay Hacks (Hack #54: "Keeping Out Deadbeat Bidders"), this is mostly due to inexperienced users who bid on items they subsequently discover they can't pay for. Naturally, sellers who more clearly spell out their shipping and payment terms will lower the incidence of deadbeats. But how does you do this effectively?

First, think of the sequence of events leading up to a bid:

  1. The bidder finds the item while searching or browsing category listings, clicks the title, and is shown the top of the auction page. On most systems, this includes the eBay logo, the header block, the seller information box, the top photo, the current price, the location of the item, and perhaps a line or two of the description.

  2. If the bidder is interested, he or she will click the top photo (or simply scroll down) to view the auction description, a larger version of the top photo, and any additional pictures.

  3. The customer will likely scroll back up to look at the price again.

  4. If the bidder decides to bid, he or she clicks Place Bid (or Buy It Now), which will jump to the bidding box at the bottom of the page.

You'll notice that the shipping and payment terms are effectively bypassed in a bidder's hasty purchase. This can pose a problem for a bidder in Brazil who never sees the note in your payment terms, explaining that you won't ship outside of the continental U.S. (or vice versa). And, by the same token, a bidder who has no PayPal account will never see that you only accept payments via PayPal. These two simple problems, fortunately, have one simple solution. Put your payment and shipping terms right in the auction description. But wait, there's more!

The number one rule of selling on eBay is that your customers will never read your auction description, at least not thoroughly. Or at least not the part you wish they'd read when it comes time to collect their payment.

So the key is to find a way to make this important information more prominent than simply including it as plain text in your auction description. Now your instinct might be to do what most people do when you don't feel listened to: yell. And in Internet netiquette, yelling means TYPING IN CAPITAL LETTERS, possibly embellishing with large, bright red text, LIKE THIS.

But yelling sends a hostile tone to your customers, and will likely drive many of them away. Plus, it will bully the rest of the text around it so that other information--important details--might be lost in the shuffle. Instead, use a little carefully placed HTML code, as described in Hack #40: Formatting the Description with HTML (available free online at hacks.oreilly.com), to clearly distinguish between your item description and your terms (without burying either).

A Little Space Goes a Long Way

Horizontal and vertical whitespace is a useful and easy-to-implement tool for making text easier to read. Let's start with this simple table:

<center>
<table width="80%" border="0">
<tr><td>
   Your description goes here...
</td></tr>
</table>
</center>

This code encases your text in an invisible (centered) table set at 80 percent of the width of the browser window, which gives us a nice 10 percent margin on either side. Then, within the table, separate your paragraphs with the <p> tag, like this:

<p>You are bidding on...</p>

<p><b>Condition:</b> The condition of this item is...</p>

<p><b>Payment terms:</b> I accept PayPal and cash, in pennies.</p>

<p><b>Shipping terms:</b> I proudly ship with the Pony Express. Shipping is fixed at $4.00.</p>

Note also that I've bolded (with the <b></b> structure) the titles of the last two paragraphs for a little subtle emphasis.

The Art of Making Boxes

Another, possibly more effective, way of setting apart your payment and shipping terms right in the auction description involves putting each in its own little table. I've also added a third box entitled "What's Included," useful for answering one of the most frequently asked questions by bidders, and removing all doubt that the original box is (or is not) included:

<table cellspacing="8" cellpadding="0" width="100%" border="0">
<tr><td valign="top" width="30%">
    <table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" width="100%" bgcolor="#000000" border="0">
    <tr><td>
        <table cellspacing="1" cellpadding="3" width="100%" border="0">
        <tr><td bgcolor="#00dbe6">
            <b>What's Included</b>
        </td></tr>
        <tr><td bgcolor="#ffffff">
            One toy car, original box, original manual
        </td></tr>
        </table>
    </td></tr>
    </table>
</td><td valign=top width="30%">
    <table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" width="100%" bgcolor="#000000" border="0">
    <tr><td>
        <table cellspacing="1" cellpadding="3" width="100%" border="0">
        <tr><td bgcolor="#00dbe6">
            <b>Payment Terms</b>
        </td></tr>
        <tr><td bgcolor="#ffffff">
            I accept PayPal and cash, in pennies.
        </td></tr>
        </table>
    </td></tr>
    </table>
</td><td valign=top width="30%">
    <table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" width="100%" bgcolor="#000000" border="0">
    <tr><td>
        <table cellspacing="1" cellpadding="3" width="100%" border="0">
        <tr><td bgcolor="#00dbe6">
            <b>Shipping Terms</b>
        </td></tr>
        <tr><td bgcolor="#ffffff">
            I proudly ship with the Pony Express. Shipping is fixed at $4.00.
        </td></tr>
        </table>
    </td></tr>
    </table>
<td valign="top"></td></tr>
</table>

Figure 2 shows what it looks like:

Figure 2
Figure 2. Putting important information in boxes helps set it apart from the description without burying it at the bottom of the page.

Just look how these boxes stand out! Put something like this in your auction, and you'll get fewer deadbeats, less negative feedback from displeased bidders (fewer displeased bidders, actually), and fewer questions while the auction is running.

Company Letterhead

Finally, you can use eBay's own HTML code to create separate sections in your description, solely for the purpose of rearranging the sections on the page (or even for creating your own). Here's how to make a new section header for the "What's Included" section that looks exactly like all the other section headers on the page:

<table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" border="0">
<tr>
<td colspan="5" bgcolor="#9999cc">
   <img src="http://pics.ebay.com/aw/pics/x.gif" width="1" height="1">
</td>
</tr><tr bgcolor="#eeeef8">
<td>
   <img src="http://pics.ebay.com/aw/pics/x.gif" width="6" height="1" alt=" " title="">
</td>
<td nowrap="nowrap">
   <span style="font-family: Arial, font-size: 12px"><b>What's Included</b></span>
</td>
<td width="100%" align="right">&nbsp;</td>
</tr>
</table>

Just put this code right in your auction description for each new header you want to appear. (Note: Make sure not to put any extraneous spaces before or after the <img> tags, or the spacing of the table will be broken.)

Each of these different approaches helps to accomplish the same thing: communicating important information about your auction to your potential customers, even when the design of the auction page is working against you. A quick little hack, and you're off and selling!

David A. Karp is the author of the bestselling Windows Annoyances series of books and the founder of Annoyances.org. He writes for PC Magazine and his latest books include eBay Hacks and the eBay: The Missing Manual.


O'Reilly & Associates recently released (August 2003) eBay Hacks.


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