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eBay heeds sellers' calls on e-mail feature

The online auction giant backs away from a new e-mail recommendation service that infuriated many of its top sellers.

eBay is backing away from a new e-mail recommendation service that infuriated many of its top sellers.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company will allow sellers to opt out of the service and will do more to promote auctions listed by sellers who continue to participate, the company said on one of its announcements boards Friday. The online auction giant even agreed to stop using the term "recommendations" to describe items highlighted by the new service.

eBay plans to make the changes to the recommendation service during the next several weeks, it said. eBay representatives did not return calls Monday seeking comment.

In its posting, the company said many of its members supported the new feature and said its data suggested that the feature helped to increase bidding. But the company decided to change the service after hearing from members, it said.

"We appreciate the input we have received on this issue," the company said in its posting. "The above changes are designed to address the concerns of our users while providing the community with a useful feature that enhances trading."

Sellers who criticized the service in its original form praised the change.

"It sounds like they are taking some measures to be reasonable about it," Dallas-based eBay seller Bobby Beeman said.

But Rosalinda Baldwin, who writes The Auction Guild, a newsletter for online auction users, called the revised system a "lose-lose" situation. Sellers who opt out of the recommendations will not have their auctions promoted. But those who opt in are giving eBay the green light to send spam, or unsolicited e-mail, to their bidders, she said.

"They are kind of coercing you to opt in," Baldwin said. "I think the program should be trashed completely."

eBay's recommendation service, which began earlier this month, e-mails bidders who have lost an auction to notify them of up to eight auctions of similar items on the site. The service promotes the items for free and eBay saw the service as a way to keep bidders on the system.

But many longtime sellers complained that the service sends their customers to their competitors and it does what eBay has forbidden its members from doing: contacting losing bidders to offer them similar items.

Others complained that the notes sent to bidders were little better than spam because they are difficult for bidders to avoid and they often send erroneous results.

As part of the new changes, sellers who opt out will not have their auctions promoted to others and bidders on their auctions will not receive the recommendation e-mail. If a seller continues to participate in the program, in its email to losing bidders, eBay will include links to the seller's auctions above any links to auctions by other sellers.

eBay's change in direction came less than a week after one of its top sellers, Bob Miller, protested the new service by trying to auction off a special jacket eBay awarded him for having one of its highest feedback ratings. Although eBay closed the auction, his action earned Miller the attention of eBay's top brass: On Wednesday, Miller said he met with eBay Chairman Pierre Omidyar and Chief Executive Meg Whitman.

Omidyar and Whitman did not seem to understand why sellers were so upset about the service, Miller said. But after Miller talked with them for 40 minutes, they vowed to modify the service, he said.

Miller, a Utah resident, said he is happy with the changes, but wishes that eBay had never debuted the service. He plans to opt out of the service as soon as eBay allows him to, he said.

"At least we're not being forced into this if we don't want to be," he said.

Despite the changes, several sellers, including Miller, criticized eBay for forcing sellers to opt out of the recommendation service, instead of allowing them to opt into it.

Ross Wright, a longtime eBay seller who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and sells on eBay under a couple of different user IDs, said he plans to continue to take part in the service with some of his auctions but not with others.

Wright said he is happy eBay made the change to allow him to opt out of the service. But he is upset that the change came only after one of eBay's top sellers complained. eBay's reaction shows how the site is becoming more skewed toward large-scale sellers instead of small sellers like him.

"Sure they should listen to a guy like that," Wright said. "But they should listen to all their customers, especially when a large number of their client group was saying, 'No, we don't like this.'"