eBay, the Search Engine

Is eBay a search engine? Of course it is. eBay is acknowledging as much. As the NY Times reports, “In a conference call, Ms. Whitman also described the importance of improving eBay’s search capability, calling the service as much a search site as Google.”

This really isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. As I recall, something on the order of 95% of eBay users find products through eBay’s search as opposed to eBay’s weak and hard-to-follow taxonomical structure. From an auctioner’s perspective, being included in eBay’s search database is a significant part of the value eBay provides. Indeed, eBay is susceptible to some of the same search engine spamming tricks that Google has to wrestle with. See, e.g., Daina J. Schemo, In Online Auctions, Misspelling in Ads Often Spells Cash, N.Y. TIMES, Jan. 28, 2004, at A1.

Of perhaps more relevance to this blog, I think eBay faces the same legal issues as any search engine. In other words, I can’t distinguish between the legal issues that should concern eBay and Google. For example, both of them should care about liabiilty for third party content and for doctrines like initial interest confusion that may inhibit using trademarked keywords to trigger advertisements.

I’ve never been a fan of efforts to make distinctions between “search engines” and “portals” and “e-commece sites” (or, in this case, “auction” sites). In the end, all of these websites are in the same business–helping consumers get what they are looking for–and thus will gravitate towards using the same mechanisms: deep databases of third party content delivered by keyword associations.