Will eBay Ads Squeeze Out the Little Guy?

Somehow, eBay is trying to put a fairness spin on news that it is going to offer sellers the option of buying banner ads on the site.

But it hard to imagine how this plan could do anything other than tilt the playing field in favor of professional, high-volume sellers and away from the hobbyists who have been eBay’s bread-and-butter from Day One.

And that’s too bad. One of the great things about eBay is how it levels things off. If you go searching for an item and find it, you may not even care who’s selling that item. Might be a little old lady in Florida who found one in her attic. Might be a wholesaler in Kansas with a warehouse full. It doesn’t matter. When using eBay, the idea is to find what you want and buy it.

But now, with banner ads entering the picture, the site is going to be skewed, it seems to me, toward sellers who can afford to buy real estate for banner ads on one of the world’s busiest and stickiest Web sites.

Keeping it Fair

eBay is preparing a test, which hopefully will flop, nipping this whole idea in the bud. But it probably won’t, because one thing this scheme does is provide eBay with more revenue.

The auction house said the idea came from sellers. That might be true, but somehow I doubt it. Take a gander at the banner ads on eBay someday and you’ll see an awful lot of in-house advertisement.

Seems that eBay users prefer to stick around on eBay, thank you very much, and aren’t inclined to click their way off of the property until they’re good and ready. So banner ads for third-party sites aren’t effective. Most of the ads now are freebies posted by eBay itself, touting its advanced services and affiliate program.

Who Wins?

So eBay gets more cash and the users who can afford ads get a leg up. True, the banners won’t send visitors directly to an auction listing. They’ll go into the About Me page, but that’s still a way to draw users away from their original destination, which may have been a competitor’s auction.

The fear I have is that eBay will start a revolt of its own. That wouldn’t take much, given the site’s legendary ability to anger its membership right up to the point where they think about leaving but never actually do so.

But this move seems to set up a class warfare scenario, where the have sellers can boost their traffic and even divert attention from the have-nots.

What About Community?

After all, eBay is supposed to be about community, remember? That was the idea behind the short-lived magazine and the plans, first floated last fall, for a television show based on eBay and the wacky millions who make it tick.

The diversity of that community does a lot more than add charm to eBay’s profile. It makes shopping on the site fun and interesting for millions of people. And it keeps the playing field level for buyers, too.

That’s because those mom-and-pop sellers are more likely to sell an item for the sake of getting rid of it or for the kicks involved, and less likely to be interesting in profiting than the professional sellers.

This is not to say there isn’t a place for the pros on eBay. Clearly they pull a lot of the weight and make the site as robust as it is. But eBay was never designed to be just about that.

And eBay for All

In fact, when eBay CEO Meg Whitman gave her latest rah-rah speech for the Internet — “we’re not dead” was the headline quote — she mentioned the fact that eBay was built on the premise of fairness for all.

She might want to take that into consideration before she tips the playing field in the direction of the professionals and away from the hobbyists who made eBay what it is today.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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