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eBay Hacks David A Karp
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
360 pages
£ 17.50
Published: 5th September 2003
reviewed by Mike Smith
   in the December 2003 issue (pdf), (html)

A while ago I reviewed a couple books in the new O'Reilly ``Hacks'' series. You may want to refer back to them, of course, as they're great. Oh, okay, don't then - but the main point was that I really liked the format: Bite-sized pieces of information. So I was really looking forward to this one.

I'll admit now that I'm not a big eBay fan. I'm probably missing out, but I've never really liked bidding for stuff, or bartering at the market for that matter. I looked at listing something myself once, but didn't want to pay the charges either! However a couple of friends are regular users (one of them has bought two guitars from Canada, even) - so I will run a few tips past them to see what they think.

In this case I was expecting some cool programmatic features for monitoring new listings, or looking at what auctions are about to close, or similar. In actual fact, there is a much wider range of subject matter covered. I was surprised by the first section, which is all about the social aspects of using eBay. Social Engineering of a sort - how to behave because of the importance of the feedback system. Out of the eight chapters, fortunately only the first is dedicated to these non-technical aspects. However it was interesting and actually probably quite useful if you don't realise the importance of the feedback system.

The remaining sections are: Two chapters for Buyers (on searching and Bidding); Five for selling (covering a wide range of techniques - including things you can do with photographs, and running a business), and the final chapter covers the eBay API (we get there in the end!)

So lets walk through the book. The first, non-technical, chapter has 8 `hacks'. As I've mentioned they are actually quite interesting, despite my chastising earlier. For instance I didn't realise that interesting stuff like Feedback extortion goes on! Maybe I have been right not to get involved!

To move onto the chapter on Searching, an interesting technique is not searching for specific items, but using other bidders (who you've been bidding against previously) to locate items you might be interested in. Clever eh? Let them do the hard work. (This is actually also mentioned in the Foreword.)

We all know of the technique for stealing the bid with only seconds to spare of course, referred to as ``sniping'' -- though ``Camping'' seems a more appropriate description to me:) However I didn't realise there were services for doing this automatically for you - e.g. eSnipe ( There are even more sophisticated features for bidding on groups of auctions. That's probably for the experts (or the addicts) though.

There is quite a bit of material on how to exploit eBay's features to improve the quality of your listed item. You can use HTML - tables for instance, and even embedded sound (if that's appropriate). You can link to your other sales, include dynamic text (just use an iframe, and you can put whatever you want in it), and most importantly add photos which will be just the thing to make a sale. There is therefore a whole chapter (9 hacks) on the subject of pictures. This covers the quality of the photograph, including the composition for instance, editing images to improve them, techniques for stopping other people from stealing them, using thumbnails, and a great little 3D interactive technique. Like it.

We next move into another interesting area - dealing with transactions. Not really technical though, so I'll skip this.

Its hack number 74 (of 100) before I noticed the first perl script. This is in the chapter about running a business on eBay, and we're starting to look at automated solutions. There are also some techniques for combining eBay and PayPal to create some powerful features.

Now, at the end, we really do start moving into the technical area. The API is XML based and examples on its use are provided in perl. But there's a catch. To use the API in the production eBay environment (apparently there is a testing sandbox) you have to be certified. And to be certified you have to PAY! This is not a developer fee - its an application fee and covers the testing requirements for using your application with the API. So if you write a new app, its likely you'll need to pay another fee. (If you change the way you use the API, you may also be required to pay a fee too.) So this isn't the same as writing addons for Google, for instance. Disappointing.

In summary, therefore, not as much technology as I would like to have seen, and to use the API there's a blummin' fee involved, but the book is very interesting nonetheless. It might just give the me the incentive to give eBay another go!

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