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Ebay's Merchant Feedback System

Reputation Wednesday is an ongoing series of essays about reputation-related matters. This week, we explore, to some depth, one of the Web's longest-running and highest-profile reputation systems. (We also test-drive our new Google-maps powered zoomable diagrams. Wheee!)

EBay contains the Internet's most well-known and studied user reputation or karma system: seller feedback. Its reputation model, like most others that are several years old, is complex and continuously adapting to new business goals, changing regulations, improved understanding of customer needs, and the never-ending need to combat reputation manipulation through abuse.

Rather than detail the entire feedback karma model here, we'll focus on claims that are from the buyer and about the seller. An important note about eBay feedback is that buyer claims exist in a specific context: a market transaction-a successful bid at auction for an item listed by a seller. This specificity leads to a generally higher quality-karma score for sellers than they would get if anyone could just walk up and rate a seller without even demonstrating that they'd ever done business with them; see Chapter 1- Implicit Reputation.

The scrolling/zooming diagram below shows how buyers influence a seller's karma scores on eBay. Though the specifics are unique to eBay, the pattern is common to many karma systems. For an explanation of the graphical conventions used, see Chapter 2.

The reputation model in this figure was derived from the following eBay pages: http://pages.ebay.com/help/feedback/scores-reputation.html and http://pages.ebay.com/services/buyandsell/welcome.html, both current as of July 2009.

We have simplified the model for illustration, specifically by omitting the processing for the requirement that only buyer feedback and Detailed Seller Ratings (DSR) provided over the previous 12 months are considered when calculating the positive feedback ratio, DSR community averages, and–by extension–power seller status. Also, eBay reports user feedback counters for the last month and quarter, which we are omitting here for the sake of clarity. Abuse mitigation features, which are not publicly available, are also excluded.

This diagram illustrates the seller feedback karma reputation model, which is made out of typical model components: two compound buyer input claims-seller feedback and detailed seller ratings-and several roll-ups of the seller's karma: community feedback ratings (a counter), feedback level (a named level), positive feedback percentage (a ratio), and the power seller rating (a label).

The context for the buyer's claims is a transaction identifier-the buyer may not leave any feedback before successfully placing a winning bid on an item listed by the seller in the auction market. Presumably, the feedback primarily describes the quality and delivery of the goods purchased. A buyer may provide two different sets of complex claims, and the limits on each vary:

  • 1. Typically, when a buyer wins an auction, the delivery phase of the transaction starts and the seller is motivated to deliver the goods of the quality advertised in a timely manner. After either a timer expires or the goods have been delivered, the buyer is encouraged to leave feedback on the seller, a compound claim in the form of a three-level rating-positive, neutral, or negative-and a short text-only comment about the seller and/or transaction. The ratings make up the main component of seller feedback karma.
  • 2. Once each week in which a buyer completes a transaction with a seller, the buyer may leave detailed seller ratings, a compound claim of four separate 5-star ratings in these categories: item as described,communications,shipping time,and shipping and handling charges.The only use of these ratings, other than aggregation for community averages, is to qualify the seller as a power seller.

EBay displays an extensive set of karma scores for sellers: the amount of time the seller has been a member of eBay; color-coded stars; percentages that indicate positive feedback; more than a dozen statistics track past transactions; and lists of testimonial comments from past buyers or sellers. This is just a partial list of the seller reputations that eBay puts on display.

The full list of displayed reputations almost serves as a menu of reputation types present in the model. Every process box represents a claim displayed as a public reputation to everyone, so to provide a complete picture of eBay seller reputation, we'll simply detail each output claim separately:

  • 3. The feedback score counts every positive rating given by a buyer as part of seller feedback, a compound claim associated with a single transaction. This number is cumulative for the lifetime of the account, and it generally loses its value over time-buyers tend to notice it only if it has a low value.

It is fairly common for a buyer to change this score, within some time limitations, so this effect must be reversible. Sellers spend a lot of time and effort working to change negative and neutral ratings to positive ratings to gain or to avoid losing a power seller rating. When this score changes, it is then used to calculate the feedback level.

  • 4. The feedback level claim is a graphical representation (in colored stars) of the feedback score. This process is usually a simple data transformation and normalization process; here we've represented it as a mapping table, illustrating only a small subset of the mappings. This visual system of stars on eBay relies, in part, on the assumption that users will know that a red shooting star is a better rating than a purple star. But we have our doubts about the utility of this representation for buyers. Iconic scores such as these often mean more to their owners, and they might represent only a slight incentive for increasing activity in an environment in which each successful interaction equals cash in your pocket.
  • 5. The community feedback rating is a compound claim containing the historical counts for each of the three possible seller feedback ratings-positive, neutral, and negative-over the last 12 months, so that the totals can be presented in a table showing the results for the last month, 6 months, and year. Older ratings are decayed continuously, though eBay does not disclose how often this data is updated if new ratings don't arrive. One possibility would be to update the data whenever the seller posts a new item for sale.

The positive and negative ratings are used to calculate the positive feedback percentage.

  • 6. The positive feedback percentage claim is calculated by dividing the positive feedback ratings by the sum of the positive and negative feedback ratings over the last 12 months. Note that the neutral ratings are not included in the calculation. This is a recent change reflecting eBay's confidence in the success of updates deployed in the summer of 2008 to prevent bad sellers from using retaliatory ratings against buyers who are unhappy with a transaction (known as tit-for-tat negatives). Initially this calculation included neutral ratings because eBay feared that negative feedback would be transformed into neutral ratings. It was not.

This score is an input into the power seller rating, which is a highly-coveted rating to achieve. This means that each and every individual positive and negative rating given on eBay is a critical one–it can mean the difference for a seller between acquiring the coveted power seller status, or not.

  • 7. The Detailed Seller Ratings community averages are simple reversible averages for each of the four ratings categories: item as described,communications,shipping time,and shipping and handling charges.There is a limit on how often a buyer may contribute DSRs.

EBay only recently added these categories as a new reputation model because including them as factors in the overall seller feedback ratings diluted the overall quality of seller and buyer feedback. Sellers could end up in disproportionate trouble just because of a bad shipping company or a delivery that took a long time to reach a remote location. Likewise, buyers were bidding low prices only to end up feeling gouged by shipping and handling charges. Fine-grained feedback allows one-off small problems to be averaged out across the DSR community averages instead of being translated into red-star negative scores that poison trust overall. Fine-grained feedback for sellers is also actionable by them and motivates them to improve, since these DSR scores make up half of the power seller rating.

  • 8. The power seller rating, appearing next to the seller's ID, is a prestigious label that signals the highest level of trust. It includes several factors external to this model, but two critical components are the positive feedback percentage, which must be at least 98%, and the DSR community averages, which each must be at least 4.5 stars (around 90% positive). Interestingly, the DSR scores are more flexible than the feedback average, which tilts the rating toward overall evaluation of the transaction rather than the related details.

Though the context for the buyer's claims is a single transaction or history of transactions, the context for the aggregate reputations that are generated is trust in the eBay marketplace itself. If the buyers can't trust the sellers to deliver against their promises, eBay cannot do business. When considering the roll-ups, we transform the single-transaction claims into trust in the seller, and–by extension–that same trust rolls up into eBay. This chain of trust is so integral and critical to eBay's continued success that they must continuously update the marketplace's interface and reputation systems.


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