Make eBay's Cassini Search Work for You

Understand and Manipulate eBay's Cassini Search Engine

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For eBay sellers, good search placement has always been one of the key differences between success and failure. Because eBay's marketplace is highly search-oriented, sellers that get great search placement—meaning an appearance in the first page or two of results—move product. Sellers that don't get great search placement struggle to survive.

Years ago, this was almost entirely a simple, transparent process.

Search results were based on the presence of keywords in listing titles; shoppers could sort listings in just a few ways. A seller's job was to cram as many commonly searched-for keywords into a listing title as possible, whether they were relevant or not.

When eBay introduced its Best Match sort order and made it the default ranking system for buyer searches, it became clear to sellers that things at eBay were changing.

Now, eBay's "Cassini" search engine has changed everything. Getting a good position in eBay search is no longer about tactics (clever keyword stuffing in listing titles, making lots of listings, listing in lots of categories), but is instead about strategy.

The Big Picture: Understanding Cassini

eBay hasn't released in-depth, nuts-and-bolts documentation for how it calculates search results. Instead, eBay has given fundamental principles and some key metrics that are used in calculating search rankings for sellers.

Any seller that makes a substantial portion of his or her income on eBay needs to understand these basics:

  • Cassini is data-driven. Cassini is all about moving beyond listing titles and a direct correlation between the list of results and the word that a shopper has typed. eBay has a huge universe of data on hand—seller performance, buyer preferences, market trends, correlations of an infinite variety, and so on—and it wants to use these, rather than just a keyword match, to return results to buyers.

  • Cassini is values-driven. In a presentation on Cassini search, the director of search for eBay Australia, Todd Alexander, outlined four core values that drive eBay's development and tweaking of the Cassini system: Relevance, Value, Trust, and Convenience.

  • Cassini is shopper-oriented. eBay makes no bones about the fact that Cassini is all about serving eBay shoppers, with the presumption that this is what will be good for sellers in the long term. This means that when eBay talks about "relevance," they mean returning results that are relevant to the shopper's intentions as best as eBay can gauge them using the data that it has. When they say "value," they mean value from the shopper's perspective. When they say "trust," they mean that the want to show listings in results that will build trust between eBay and buyers. When they say "convenience," they mean that they want Cassini to make eBay more convenient for shoppers—not necessarily for sellers.

In the broadest possible terms, eBay has made clear that it wants Cassini to generate and rank search results in whatever way is most likely to generate an immediate sale and a happy transaction for the buyer following each search.

While some sellers may bemoan this orientation as yet another way in which eBay has chosen to place the needs of buyers over sellers, a more nuanced view makes sense here.

eBay is competing against Amazon and other major threats; in the long term, sellers will benefit only if buyers continue to buy on and come back to eBay. This means a priority on making an easy, convenient sale each time a buyer bothers to conduct a search and a priority on ensuring that the sale is given to a seller that won't have the buyer visiting Amazon instead for their next purchase.

Factor in These Considerations When Optimizing Your Listings for Cassini

The most important thing to understand about Cassini is that it not only fails to reward many old-school listing practices but may, in fact, punish them.

Under Cassini, several factors that were not previously considered and/or given a high priority now matter for your visibility on eBay:

  • Sell-through-style data. Though from what eBay has said Cassini doesn't use a traditional sell-through calculation to rank listings for search results, Cassini does use a similar calculation: the relationship between how many times your listing has been seen and the number of sales you generate. This means that it is no longer a clearly good thing for your listing to be seen unless this visibility actually results in a transaction, a clear departure from the way that eBay has worked for many years.

  • Complete listing data, including item specifics and description. Cassini relies on data in the listing aside from the title alone in order to rank results. These include catalog and item specifics and item description. 

  • Category appropriateness. With Cassini, eBay began giving weight to the appropriateness of the category in which the listing has been placed. Listings that eBay calculates to be appropriate for the category will place higher than listings that it believes are miscategorized.

  • Seller performance. Cassini takes your performance as a seller, in all its many dimensions, into account when placing your listings in search results. This means going beyond feedbacktop-rated status, and similar dimensions and into detailed seller ratingscustomer service and disputes history, including things like buyer protection outcomes and responsiveness to eBay message system communication and other similar metrics.

Avoid These No-Nos to Impress Cassini 

These changes mean that all of the following are definite no-nos that may effectively, and in context, harm your ranking:

  • No-no: Keyword stuffing. Under Cassini, the last thing that you want to do is get as many varied keywords into your listings as possible. Even if eBay doesn't directly penalize the practice, having your listings show up in response to every last search regardless of outcome is no longer a good thing. Just imagine this scenario: You add the keyword "iPhone" to listings for Android phones. Sure, your listings may be visible initially to anyone searching for an iPhone, but each time someone sees your listing and doesn't actually click through or make a purchase, it's going to hurt your impressions-to-transactions ratio, pushing you downward in rankings. The old hope that you might just change the mind of one in every thousand iPhone shoppers is now offset by the fact that those other 999 iPhone shoppers that didn't buy your Android phone after seeing your listing are actively hurting your search placement.

  • No-no: Category stuffing. The same thing goes for listing in multiple categories. With Cassini, it's more and more important to avoid listing items in categories "just because" those categories are hot. Put your phones in the category for phones and your accessories in the category for accessories, or risk having your search placement in both hurt.

  • No-no: Terse listings. If you've hesitated to use the catalog or item specifics until now or have been loathing to create visually nice, informative, and detailed item descriptions, you're at a disadvantage under Cassini relative to sellers that do use or do these things. When all of these things are fodder for search matches, you're in trouble if your competitors have tons of information and keywords to match in these areas and you've left them essentially blank.

  • No-no: Poor images and lazy listings. Now that every click and buy counts, you can't afford to turn up in search listings but get ignored or passed over by shoppers. Photos need to be big, clear, and appealing, and listing text needs to be well-organized, well-formatted and free of grammatical or spelling errors that might give a shopper pause. Remember, under Cassini, it can be worse to place well in search results and not earn a sale from a shopper than to have not appeared at all.

  • No-no: Poor customer service. With seller performance and trust now figuring into search ranking, you've got to pay attention to more than your basic feedback score and DSR numbers and they matter for more than just winning the battle for the buyer's bid. Sellers that demonstrate consistently customer-friendly practices are going to be much more visible, while sellers that don't are going to struggle to be seen in the first place.

What You Should Do

If this list of factors and no-nos has your head spinning, it might be simpler to boil this all down to something more basic. That something is this: as eBay search continues to evolve, it's clear that the sellers that are going to do best are those that engage in good, old-fashioned customer-centric business practices.

Strive to be seen only by buyers that are actually looking for what you have to sell. Then, be sure that you've got the best pitch around for why they should buy your item rather than someone else's. Make great listings—meaning listings that are honest, focused, aesthetically appealing, complete, detailed, and informative. Then, provide great customer service and customer-friendly policies.

In the end, if you're building more present and future business and loyalty for eBay than the other sellers around you (according to the hard data that eBay has), you're going to prosper. If you're underperforming in these areas relative to the best sellers, you're going to be pages back in the results, if you appear at all.