What Is Social Commerce? eBay Takes a Stab With Its New Site Redesign.

EBay just took the wraps off a completely redesigned homepage, its first major change for the online marketplace in 17 years. The new look allows consumers to browse rather than having to know exactly what they’re search for.

As part of the unveiling, eBay CTO Mark Carges provided a glimpse of how the company plans to make the shopping experience more social.

“It’s a no-brainer, in terms of where we go next,” he said in an interview.

After it was announced on Wednesday, the new homepage slowly started rolling out to consumers in the U.S. What they will notice first is a more contemporary feel that looks more like a mobile application than it does an e-commerce site. Recommendations will appear based on your past searches, and the algorithms will change as you interact with the feed. In the end, consumers will have ultimate control, so even if you buy razor blades and coffee filters on eBay, you don’t necessarily have to see them in your feed.

Next, Carges said, eBay will be adding a community layer for consumers. Users will be able to share their feeds, or follow other feeds. A good example would be an eBay seller who has created a collection of goods he or she is selling and makes that feed available to others to follow. Motifs could form round comic books, coffee or shoes, for example.

“I’ve been here for four years, and have focused most of my time on making search better,” Carges said. “But shoppers have also said they need browsing and inspiration capabilities. We felt now was a time to bring out a way to personalize passions, whether it is their hobbies or things they like to buy — and bring it to life in the feed.”

The comparison to Pinterest is already worn out, but the personal and social features only accentuate the overlap. Pinterest has done an excellent job in creating a huge community that refers ideas to one another. The commonalities between its homepage and Pinterest are not lost on Carges, but you could nearly see him wincing through the telephone line each time they came up. “It’s also very unique in a couple of ways,” he said. “One is that it’s instantly shoppable. Other sites have highly visual metaphors, but the difference is that we have done it in the context of shopping.”

That is true of “other sites.” In many cases on Pinterest, the item that someone is recommending could be sold out or be three or four clicks deep — which can be way beyond a consumer’s tolerance level. In contrast, eBay wants buying to be insanely easy. As part of the homepage redesign, it narrowed down the number it clicks to make a purchase from four to one.

EBay’s move to a more social and browsable model is part of a broader trend of e-commerce companies trying to become more social. To date, retailers efforts in the space haven’t produced much. Most experiments have revolved around using Facebook to create a more personalized experience. For instance, people who logged into retail sites with their Facebook credentials would, in theory, see recommendations based on their stated interests. And other retailers have come up with nifty ways for purchases to occur directly on a Facebook feed. Even Facebook is trying to figure out commerce, with its recent launch of Facebook Gifts.

Over the past two years, eBay has been investing heavily in social. Last year, it hired Don Bradford as VP of social, and made it one of its four priorities, along with local, mobile and digital payments. Before joining eBay, Bradford worked at Microsoft Live Search communities and MSN Hotmail, and worked shortly at Yahoo, where he was VP of Communities.

Previous social experiments for eBay have included things like group gifts, which allow multiple people to chip in to buy a present. The company has also enabled users to log in to their Facebook account on eBay’s homepage to get product recommendations on past purchasing habits and things you have “liked” on your Facebook page, such as movies, books and music.

An eBay spokesperson confirmed that the social features are separate from what Bradford has been working on  — which means even more is coming. New iterations of the feed are expected to be managed by a small team of people from eBay and recent acquisitions, including Milo and Hunch.

While this week’s homepage design isn’t the largest project the company has undertaken over past few years, “it’s the most visible,” Carges said. “The thing we’ve been focused on in the turnaround was under the covers and deep in the tech, search and algorithms. These are things that buyers see.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work