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Feedback Changes - Griff's Perspective

Posted by Brian on February 01, 2008 at 05:55 PM in General , Letters from Griff | Permalink

Ab_griffAs you might imagine, I have received some email this week about the recent announcements, especially with regards to changes in the Feedback system. The majority of the emails sent, were by sellers with various levels of concern (ranging from high-pitched vehemence to eruptive volcanic rage).
Almost all of the emails I received in the last week start or end with something like, “…Griff, I know as an eBay old timer, you don’t agree with these changes and I am hoping you can use your voice to have this decision reversed…”

The truth is I am 100% in favor of the changes to Feedback. In fact, I have been hoping for this type of change for quite a while now. Please put down those stones and give me a moment to explain.

For those of you who have been around since the early days, you remember that in its first incarnation back in 1996, the eBay Feedback system, as intentionally designed by Pierre Omidyar, was wide open. Any registered eBay user could leave Feedback for any other registered user, for any reason.

You could leave Feedback for a buyer, a seller, or even for someone who may have helped you with a question on the eBay chat boards. Alternatively, you could leave a negative to someone who might have offended you on the chat board.

That original version of Feedback wasn’t perfect. There were the occasional abuses, but for the most part, the first version of eBay Feedback worked, primarily because the Community back then was smaller in number and the occasional Feedback abuses were easier to spot and remedy.

By 1999, our Community had grown to a size that made the old system unworkable as a reliable reputation record. The incidence of Feedback padding and Feedback flame wars started to get out of hand. Therefore, after nearly a year of careful deliberation and planning, the first major change to Feedback rolled out; the ability to leave Feedback was restricted to only the buyer and seller in a transaction.

There was of course, quite an outcry from long-time eBay members who were unhappy with the change (making Feedback transaction related) but buyers and sellers adapted quickly and the revised version of Feedback worked well, for a few years at least.

Since 2000, all good sellers have strived to maintain the best possible Feedback score and percentage possible. Maintaining a 100% positive rating became the main driver behind many sellers’ eBay selling strategies. Who could blame them? As the online marketplace grew in depth and breadth, a good, reliable measure of reputation was critical to a seller’s success.

Some, in fact, many sellers maintained a 99-100% positive Feedback rating by building their whole business strategy around “customer first” by providing the best possible experience for all their buyers. Let’s call them “A1” sellers. The majority of these “A1” sellers left Feedback for their buyers upon receipt of payment (thus removing the possibility of their giving a retaliatory Feedback to a buyer).

Many other sellers maintained a 99-100% by exploiting the system’s inherent built-in weakness: the implied threat of retaliation for a received negative. These sellers – we’ll call them “A2” sellers – never left Feedback first, but always waited to leave Feedback after the buyer left Feedback for them.

Many eBay buyers also became aware of the system’s inherent weakness through first either hand experience or deduction. Some buyers figured out that if they did have a less than pleasant experience with an “A2” seller, they would be “dinged” in kind. These savvy buyers stopped leaving deserved negatives for these sellers. Other eBay buyers learned of the system’s tilt only after leaving a negative for a seller and receiving one in kind. These otherwise good buyers, soured on their experience with retaliatory Feedback, were immediately leery of making future purchases on eBay. Many even stopped using the site altogether.

As the issue of retaliatory Feedback continued to grow as a Community concern, our remedy was to introduce Mutual Feedback Withdrawal which de-scores the negative comments left by a buyer and seller for each other, thus removing the effect of those negatives on the member’s percentage rating. As the number of active buyers and sellers grew on eBay, the “A2” sellers discovered that Mutual Feedback Withdrawal had some shortcomings, with the ability to “extort” a removal of a negative from their profile.

The unfortunate result of both the system’s retaliation weakness and the exploitability of Mutual Feedback Withdrawal was a slow and steady erosion in Feedback’s accuracy and efficacy as a reputation guide for buyers to rate sellers.

In my opinion, the fault for this erosion does not lie with sellers or buyers. The fault is ours (eBay). When we changed the system back in 1999 to one tied to a transaction, we should have had the foresight to implement then, the bold change that we announced a few days ago.

This is why I was relieved and excited to hear the news that the system was undergoing a major change, but I worried as well. It is human nature to resist change and I knew that this was one change that, although necessary for the health of our marketplace, would generate much seller consternation and in some cases, outright shock and anger.

We aren’t just talking about a policy change here. For all of us inside the eBay universe, this is a major cultural change; in fact, the most ground breaking of any change ever made on eBay including the first major change to Feedback in 2000 – Transaction-related only Feedback.

So why am I blogging this? Good question. My opinion about the Feedback changes, no matter how well stated, will not easily assuage the fears and anger of many sellers nor do I expect it to persuade those who are absolutely determined that restricting sellers to leaving only positives for buyers is a good thing for business. But, after listening to hundreds (thousands if you count my archived email since 1996) of buyers and sellers on the topic of retaliatory negatives and knowing that ultimately, the old system would continue to drive away buyers at an alarming rate. I believe this is the right and the only path to take, and I urge everyone to give the changes a chance to work.

Starting in May, as buyers begin to leave more honest Feedback and the spread between Feedback scores opens up over time (yes, many of us with lily-white 100% positive scores will loose them), the trust that buyers have in the entire eBay marketplace will increase as well. If we evolve our Feedback system so that it provides a more accurate and reliable gauge of a seller's business and customer practices, I know that buyers will become more confident in their purchases on eBay and most importantly in our most valuable asset. You.

- Note: Griff's blog piece was posted by Brian on behalf of Griff due to some technical issues.

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