EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 379 - June 07, 2015 - ISSN 1528-6703     3 of 5

Understanding eBay's New Product Identifiers Requirement

By Greg Holden

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If you run your own online business, you already have plenty to do - so if someone gives you a new requirement to meet, there had better be a good reason for it.

That's why eBay sellers could be expected to be skeptical about the new requirement that they add "product identifiers" to their listings as part of the recent Spring Seller Update that goes into effect on June 29.

In the page explaining the new requirement, eBay mentions brand name, Manufacturer Part Numbers (MPN), and Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs), and says entering such numbers in Item Specifics will "make it easier for shoppers to find your items."

But shoppers who come to eBay don't enter a product code when they're looking for a pair of size 8 Nikes, or an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) when they're looking for a book. So why are product identifiers so important?

eBay, Google, Amazon, and Bing all use such numbers behind the scenes when their search engines receive a request for an item. eBay explains that sellers who include such numbers will get better placement in search results. The company doesn't get more specific than that, at least not on the aforementioned page.

You can find the list of categories that are impacted by the new requirement on this page. Sellers who list used, collectible, vintage, or one-of-a-kind items will not be required to include unique product identifiers.

Seller Reaction
A thread in the discussion area on the eBay Spring Seller Update board included some interesting speculations by sellers as to why eBay is doing this and what the benefits (if any) will be.

"I cannot understand why a UPC is going to be required," the seller "post-age" began. "First off, NO older items have such a thing and secondly, Has anyone here EVER used a UPC to search for an eBay item? on either eBay OR on Google?"

Some of the responses included the following theories:

  • eBay is doing this to keep up with Amazon because Amazon already does it.

  • This will only help sellers whose customers use smartphones or other mobile devices to scan barcodes in a brick-and-mortar store and search for merchandise. Otherwise there won't be much benefit.

  • For sellers of vintage and one-of-a-kind items that have never had product identifiers, there is no effect at all.

  • Buyers who do scan the barcode of an item they are looking for will be able to quickly compare such specifics as condition, price, shipping charges, and more.

Terapeak's Take
To get a third-party perspective on product identifiers and why it's important to include them and other attributes in your listings, I turned to Terapeak, a service provider that licenses eBay data for its research and seller tools.

Terapeak's CPO Jack Noppe said Item Specifics is just a term for the identifiers used to structure eBay's product catalog. Most large retailers spend a lot of resources to ensure their catalogs are structured in a way that are as standardized as possible, and eBay is no exception. Examples of Item specifics are things such as Brand, Model, Shoe Size, Storage Capacity, Weight, Color, etc., he explained.

When sellers enter these types of information, their hope is they make it easy for shoppers to discover and evaluate their product against identical products offered by other sellers. But, he said, "the reality is that color choices such as grey versus gray, or weight choices such as 1kg versus 2.2lbs are all valid entries, but they are not standardized, and therefore they will not show up as being identical in typical shopper searches."

Are Product Identifiers Effective?
Terapeak compared the sales success (measured by sell-through rate) of listings across eBay.com's 33 main categories for a typical day in recent history. It found that items that used identifiers sold on average 1.6 times more often than other listings.

That said, "you cannot say that entering item identifier information will always result in 1.6 times higher sales, since items that have identifiers are usually from more credible sellers and have more detailed information and pictures, etc.," Terapeak's Noppe said.

"But we also know that as of June 29th, 2015, eBay's search engine will provide higher visibility to listings using identifiers."

Is eBay's Requirement All About Mobile Shoppers?
"It is unlikely/infrequent that buyers will scan (or enter) barcodes for a search, and that is not what this initiative is hoping to achieve," Noppe said. "The benefits are likely to be more indirect and relates to the eBay search engine's ability to serve up useful results when a buyer searches by keyword."

Noppe provided an example:

  • Seller-A offers a product "Apple iPhone 6 64GB Space Gray" and enters a UPC;
  • Seller-B offers a product "Apple iPhone 6 64GB Gray" and enters the same UPC;
  • Seller-C offers a product "Apple iPhone 6 64GB Gray" and does NOT enter a UPC;

A buyer comes along does a search for "Apple iPhone 6 Space Gray" without entering a UPC code. A search engine that doesn't take into account UPCs would likely return only results from Seller-A (and similar entries).

Seller-B and Seller-C would be lower in the search results, because the search engine would not be able to do an exact match between "Space Gray" and "Gray."

For a search engine that does use UPCs, it could do an exact match with products of Seller-A and Seller-B, so Seller-B's listing would benefit from having a UPC entered, while Seller-C's listing will not benefit since it doesn't use a UPC.

Where to Find Product Identifiers and UPCs
There's no central database that contains lists of all product identifiers along with descriptions of products, but Noppe recommended this UPC Lookup site.

He explained that UPC barcodes are organized by GS1 US. Each barcode is usually 12 digit where the first four to six digits is given to a unique manufacturer and the subsequent numbers are used by the manufacturer to distinguish each unique product. Usually even slightest change in a product requires the company to assign a new UPC barcode. More information is available at gtin.info/upc, and see an interview with Bernie Hogan, Senior Vice President of Emerging Capabilities and Industries at GS1 US from last year.

Google Requires Product Identifiers Too
When asked if the reason Google required product identifiers had to do with mobile shopping and about the importance of product identifiers in Google Shopping, a spokesperson simply referred me to this page on Google Merchant Center that explains product identifiers.

There, Google recommends that sellers include brand name, MPN, and GTIN numbers where they are available.

For sellers of custom goods or older products that don't have unique product identifiers, Google requires sellers use the "identifier exists" attribute to let it know.

Why Sellers Should Care About Product Identifiers
Why should sellers care about identifiers? Terapeak's Noppe said the top reasons include search engine rules and shopper confidence.

"If the search engine biases towards results with identifiers, then seller listings should take advantage of this. It is a matter of public record that eBay listings will show up in search results more often if they have more complete product identifier information."

As far as shopper confidence, he said, "Shoppers evaluate similar products based on available information. Seller listings with less detailed information than listings of identical products by other sellers are less likely to convert to sales."

The bottom line: If you have or can find product identifiers, include them. Then test the results to see if you see the benefits that eBay, Terapeak, and Google all say you will.


About the author:

Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.


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