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Thinking of leaving eBay and getting a professional website? Look before you leap!

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,
Several times a month, I have the pleasure of hearing from eBay sellers and eBay store owners who are considering leaving eBay. Some of the folks I hear from have only been making efforts on eBay for a few months. Others have been at it for years. Yet, motivations for making a move tend to boil down to a few common things. Do you see yourself in the following?
1) You Don’t Like Paying eBay’s Fees
Between eBay’s monthly fees, Paypal’s transactional fees and additional fees the seller may be paying for image hosting, auction management and other services, it’s pretty obvious to the seller that they’ve got to cut big pieces out of their pie and hand it over to other folks, rather than keeping it all for themselves. Additional bad feelings occur whenever eBay raises their fees. The great fee hike of 2006, which consisted of a 2% raise of eBay’s cut on every sold item and a 5-10 cent raise on monthly charges for every item listed in eBay’s stores, caused mayhem in the eBay community like I’ve never seen before. My inbox was literally flooded with requests for advice about how to jump ship and survive, and I ended up spending 6-8 hours a week for a couple of months, trying to respond to this panic. I learned a lot from this experience, talking to so many eBay sellers.
That chaos eventually died down, but emails continue to come in expressing the same unhappiness with the operating costs of running an eBay store.
2) You Don’t Like the Lack of Visibility
You spend hours listing your items every day, only to find yourself number 972 in a list of 1000 items in eBay’s internal search results. You try to catch onto any advice you can about how to get your items to appear higher in eBay, but it’s never very clear, and at the end of your auctions or the end of the month, your inventory is still sitting there while you’re out the money for having listed it.
3) You Just Don’t Like eBay
I’ll be the first to say it – eBay’s customer support is a joke. Their livechat, their email responses and their general attitude towards their sellers is abysmal. I’ve had numerous absurd interactions with eBay’s staff over the past couple of years and can appreciate how the incompetence, robotic response and lack of care for the seller’s needs can make the blood pressure skyrocket. If my livelihood depended on eBay, I think I’d need medication. As it is, I’ve had to learn to laugh at the foolishness I’ve encountered in the customer support at eBay. But it isn’t very funny when your money, your online reputation and your sanity are hanging in the balance while you await a poorly spelled, text book response from someone who couldn’t care less whether you’ve been ripped off, unjustly maligned or are simply unable to make some function of eBay’s bug-ridden system work.
Okay, so there are some pretty crummy things about eBay. But the point of this article isn’t just to gripe about the problems. If I’ve correctly assessed, above, some of the things you don’t like about eBay, let me give similar attention to what eBay does for you. Too often, the eBay store owners and sellers I speak with are considering leaving eBay because they believe that getting their own website going will put an end to their problems. Let me contrast the 3 points above with what the world looks like for the traditional website owner.
1) Now We’re Talking About Real Money
So you pay $15 for a domain name and $80 a year for hosting. That’s quite affordable, certainly. But now come the real costs. How will you process orders? Tackle a free cart like ZenCart or OsCommerce? Prepare for a big learning curve and headaches. Want a professional cart with customer support? The one we work with costs $229/yr. It’s great, but it’s a cost you must consider. You’ll need to get a merchant account/payment gateway set up as well, from a company like Authorize.net. Hello, again, monthly fees.
If you can write HTML/CSS from scratch, you are ahead of the game and can really cut costs in the development of your website. Not a pro at it? Don’t know about SEO? The end results won’t be professional and your business will suffer as a result of that. Need to hire a pro like me to build your site for you? Prepare for an upfront investment of at least a couple of thousand dollars. Got hundreds or thousands of products to manage? Now we’re talking about getting a content management system custom built for you. There are open-source products for this, but if you want this custom built for your business so that it works just as you need it to, likely we’re looking at a few thousand more dollars.
My point is that, unlike eBay where you may be investing as little as $20 month to at least have a store you call your own, getting a serious, professional, usable, functional, optimized website launched for your business is going to require a serious business investment on your part. There are no shortcuts to this if you are coming at this from the point of view that you are a business person with a real business. It costs real money to be in real business.
I’d estimate that about 90% of the eBay sellers I explain the above to thank me for my time and say they’ll have to get back to me when they’ve saved up some funds. There is no shame in not having the money to do this today. The shame, in my opinion, is when people make a move without taking the time to do this kind of research to find out what they’re really up against.
2) Now We’re Talking About Real Competition
A simple example will sum this up nicely. Searching eBay’s main index for the term ‘cook books’, we see 2,949 items. There are, at present, 18,237 cook books in eBay stores. How about that same search on Google? Now we’re looking at 4,220,000 entries! As you can imagine, if it’s hard to get onto eBay’s first page for something like this, picture trying to get into Google’s top 10 when you’ve got not hundreds, but thousands or millions of competitors. Obviously, this is a broad search for a generic item, but the formula tends to hold true, no matter what you sell.
EBay has its own search engine that values and ranks results based on its own algorithm. Advice for getting top listings is varied, including suggestions like listing over 100 items a month, a week, how you title your products, etc.
Trying to rank well on major Internet search engines is a pursuit of its own. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a practice in which one optimizes pages and undertakes on-going off-page efforts in an attempt to rank well in Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. Google tends to be the big cheese we spend most of our time trying to please. As with eBay’s search engine, no one knows Google’s algorithm apart from a couple of people at Google. The good thing about SEO is that our research, findings and efforts as SEOs are well-documented. The challenging thing is that you, the website owner, are going to have to set aside a good amount of time to study all of this documentation and become educated about how to build and run a search-engine-friendly website in order to seriously compete with others in your industry. Barring this, you can hire an SEO savvy web designer like me to build the site for you and teach you as much as I can about how search engines work. But, as you guessed, that’s another investment you’d need to plan for.
3) All Applications Have Problems
If you don’t like eBay’s customer support, unfortunately, you may be in for more of the same lack of respect from many of the service providers you’ll run into when it comes to all of the components of your website. Your hosting company may be great, but your shopping cart company may be a nightmare. And, I’d say that the #1 heartache for small business owners comes when they attempt to take the least expensive road by going with something like a Yahoo! store. It’s the same situation of paying a rather low monthly fee for having a website. It all looks pretty great until the site owner is a few hundred or thousand dollars into the game and suddenly discovers they can’t even manage basics for their site like configuring an HTAccess file or using virtual includes to rule their pages. The big template companies like Yahoo! and Homestead have serious problems that become more apparent the more serious a small business tries to be. And, tick off Google? They can knock you out of their index without so much as a fare-thee-well and are not even obligated to tell you why.
My basic point here is that the frustrations you’ve experienced with eBay are a sort of preview of what you can run into out there on the Internet. Be prepared for that.
Is It Really All That Bad?
I’ve had more than one eBay seller get hurt feelings when I’ve given them a straight answer about what running a successful website involves. I recall one lady, in particular, who accused me of trying to discourage her. On the one hand, I could agree with that. Her business model coupled with her lack of funding seemed doomed to failure. I was, indeed, trying to discourage her from wasting her money. On the other hand, I felt concern that this woman took my advice, given freely (no consulting charge), as some type of personal insult to her. I wasn’t going to benefit from her decision, either way, but I was worried about this business owner’s general future in business if she couldn’t handle the truth about how tough things were going to be. Doing business on the Internet is tough.
However, migrating from eBay to your own website has many, many benefits, and I want to list some of these here.

  • You own your domain -it’s yours!
  • Get the right cart and there are no per-item fees for listing or selling.
  • You can have a beautiful, hand-coded website – not one of eBay’s clunky stores.
  • You don’t have to deal with anyone’s rules or policies but your own.
  • Not even Google can tell you what to do. Your site is yours.
  • Being self-reliant can be great. The success of your business is based on what’s in you!

From a technical, SEO and marketing standpoint, there are many more reasons why having a website beats the stuffing out of running an eBay store, in certain cases.
I have come to believe that the main deciding factor in whether an eBay store or a traditional website will better serve a small business person is this: industry. Chances are, you are going to be better off sticking with eBay as your main pursuit if your business can be described like this:
1) You’ve got a garage sale inventory. A little this, a little that. Everything from candles to car parts. This works on eBay. It’s doom on the world wide web.
2) You are selling something where an Internet monopoly already exists. Books, DVDs? Amazon.com already exists. You cannot beat them by trying to imitate them without a billion dollar budget. If you could narrow your venture down to a specific type of book (vintage travel guides) or a particular type of DVD (Montessori Education DVDs) there may be hope for standing out in the crowd, but a general inventory has little chance of ranking well in Google where such big competitors already exist.
3) You are selling something in a crowded, competitive market. Jewelry and clothing comes to mind first. If you’ve got a broad inventory of this-and-that jewelry and clothing that you pick up at flea markets and the like, it’s going to be a real uphill struggle to compete with established companies with big business budgets. Maybe not impossible. But chances are, your customer base is looking on eBay for the type of thing you sell. Used items, in particular, are great on eBay but maybe not so great for a regular website. Again, this depends on the industry, but for the most part, you’ve got to have something very special going on to make waves of the web.
What Does Work, Then?
Great ideas work. That’s where the money is. An on-line flea market was eBay’s great idea, and you’re making use of that idea. But, it’s not going to be a great idea to take a grab-bag inventory off of eBay, because you can’t hope to compete against eBay without eBay’s budget. The answer, then, is to specialize in something. If your eBay store sells a bunch of diverse items, start doing research. For example, say you sell a wide variety of garden-related items and you notice that your handmade wind chimes are popular. Try an exercise like this:
1) Go to Google and see what the results look like for ‘wind chimes’
2) Look at the top 10 listings. Are they big monster companies? Are there some small businesses thrown in there?
3) Thoroughly investigate the small business sites you see ranking well for this term. Think you can offer more than them? Run a better site? Offer better variety, better prices, better written information? Add something they don’t have? A blog, maybe? Do you have the funds to get a professional website going that can compete with theirs?
4) Use a keyword tool like the one at SEObook.com to see what the estimated traffic is for the types of things you want to sell. Is the supply seriously outweighing the demand? Or, are you seeing lots of searches returning poor results?
Based on research like this (and more in-depth study of the market you’re considering) you start to formulate an idea of whether going into business as the Wind Chimes specialist has a chance of becoming a real business for you. If you skip the research phase, hoping that people will just find you like they’re doing inside of eBay, the results will not likely be happy.
What I see working in the small business world revolves around bright, hardworking people putting in massive efforts to gain visibility for a specific, desirable type of product. Things-n-stuff will not do it on the web, though it’s fine for eBay. Set the goal to become the Internet’s best resource for Sterling Silver Dolphin Jewelry, for Handmade Birdhouses, for Vintage Snoopy Dogs or whatever your research shows you makes a good and reasonable bet.
A do-it-yourself mentality can also be a big help here. If you are willing to study design, Usability, SEO and Internet marketing, this means you can become self-sufficient in performing these tasks yourself for your business, rather than investing in professional help from outside. On the other hand, it’s important to know when you do need a pro. For example, you might want to have a company like mine develop your website at the outset, with the understanding that you will then take over, educating yourself about search engines, becoming your company’s linkbuilder, content writer, marketer, etc.
And, last but not least, pick a line of work you truly enjoy. You are going to need energy and exuberance if you want to come across as a trusted authority in your field. Small business owners who love what they do keep going strong while their not-so-happy colleagues burn out and find themselves having nothing to say about their work life. Choose your venture wisely so this doesn’t happen to you.
You can succeed on the web with a bright idea and the right combination of funding and skills. I hope this post has made you feel not discouraged, but encouraged to take yourself and your business potential seriously.