All things considered, 2017 wasn’t as bad it could have been. Innovation seemed to be everywhere, and both large online marketplaces and smaller classified sites made some fantastic strides. However, issues around security and scams persisted, in spite of heightened awareness and the active stances taken by many to combat them. Here’s a look at the year in review – the things we found most interesting for the online marketplace industry.
Renewed faith in online marketplaces
The year began well for online used goods marketplace letgo, which raised $175 million back in January. While its automatic tagging and listing software may have got investors excited about the site’s (and the app’s) possibilities, it followed a trend seen in the tail end of 2016 – big online players investing in smaller marketplaces – and renewed overall interest in classified sites. Amazon too dipped a toe into the secondhand goods market, offering a trial ‘Sell as Individual’ service in the Indian city of Bangalore, putting the retail giant in possible conflict with the likes of eBay.
However that same month, under mounting pressure from the US Senate and anti-sex trafficking groups, classifieds site Backpage removed the ‘Adult’ section of its site. While victims and support groups were pleased with the outcome, others (including Backpage’s founders) felt it an act of ‘unconstitutional government censorship’ – a backwards step for freedom of speech.
Tougher stance on hate
In addition, Facebook also came under fire in January for leaving a torture video up for 30 minutes. Not the first time the social network has received criticism for its moderation processes and almost certainly not the last. However, as its leaked moderation guidelines suggest (skipping ahead to May briefly…) rules surrounding violence and hate speech are increasingly complex.
Just weeks later in March, Germany introduced (and later passed) legislation to impose fines of up to €50 million on social media companies that fail to remove hate speech quickly. Similarly, in the same month it was reported that many high profile advertisers were boycotting YouTube for fear of being featured alongside hate speech videos – evidence that both governments and brands were taking user generated content, and its impact, very seriously.
Spring into innovation
However, Spring was also a time when several classified sites upped the innovation ante. During Google’s annual Cloud Next conference, eBay’s chief product officer, RJ Pittman, stunned the audience by conversing with his employer’s ShopBot – a voice-based AI assistant accessed via Google’s Home device. Though the potential could well be enormous for a tech like this (imagine being able to ask eBay what your unwanted Christmas gifts might fetch…) as yet, the feature hasn’t been launched.
In April, the UK version of Match.com launched its first chatbot. Called ‘Lara’, this Facebook Messenger tool was billed as the ‘first dating bot’ and can be used by new members to create a Match profile using their Facebook information. From a technical standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feature is Lara’s natural language processing techniques, which ensures she (?) interacts with users seamlessly.
The dating game picks up its pace
Lara wasn’t the only digital dating innovation to debut. DatePlay burst onto the lonely hearts scene in early 2017. The app, which gamifies the whole process of dating, is the brainchild of entrepreneur, Vana Koutsomitis, who originally pitched the idea to Lord Alan Sugar during her time on British TV show The Apprentice back in 2015.
The month of May began with news that two of the biggest online dating services, Affinitas and Spark Networks, were merging to form Spark Networks SE; meaning that the EliteSingles brand and several major dating services – including JDate, JSwipe, and ChristianMingle – would now be part of the same company; and now have an overall subscriber base of 500,000 people.
Facebook faces the music
Facebook was another company actively growing its numbers in May. The social giant announced it would add another 3,000 content moderators to its staff count – seemingly a response to wider discussions about the need to quickly remove potentially harmful and offensive content.
A few weeks later The Guardian newspaper published a report revealing all Facebook’s moderation rules. Effectively, the report was a detailed account of exactly how the platform tackles everything from hate speech and terrorism, to revenge pornography and self-harm. More than anything else, the report illustrated how Facebook currently balances obscenity and freedom. It also included training manuals, spreadsheets, and numerous guidelines on escalation; proving just how difficult the task is and how discerning moderators need to be.
The Global Online Classifieds Summit was held for the first time in Miami in June; three days of masterclasses, insights, and networking opportunities in, just a short hop from South Beach. The Besedo team were there, and and we’ll be there in 2018 as a speaker.
In innovation terms, the summer was a time for testing things out. Google introduced an AI-powered job search engine; Amazon (very briefly) dipped a toe into real estate services; eBay announced it was launching two new picture-based tools: ‘Find It On eBay’ and Image search; and Facebook Marketplace officially launched in Europe.
On a different note, following the eclipse that covered much of North America in August, Amazon was hit with a lawsuit after a couple experience blurred vision and increased eye sensitivity after watching the eclipse through defective sunglasses they’d purchased through the site. Over in Britain, popular classifieds site, Gumtree published a common scams report: part of its ongoing consumer-focused awareness advice.
September saw South African media giant, Naspers invest another $775 million in Berlin-based takeaway food service, Delivery Hero; upping their stake to more than 26% and giving the service a possible introduction into the US market.
October was a busy month for classified sites and online marketplaces. eBay-owned Marktplaats, the Netherland’s dominant general classifieds site, announced it was in the process of adding image recognition and chatbot support, to help users compile and post their listings. US-based ‘yard sale’ app 5miles had an innovation to share too; a blockchain protocol called Cybermiles, designed to ‘empower the decentralization of online marketplaces’.
eBay also launched Authenticate; a service in which industry professionals authenticate luxury handbags – assuring buyers that their purchases are valid, and helping sellers get a decent price for these popular high ticket items. Facebook launched a car marketplace in October; bolstering its presence in the peer-to-peer classifieds space, and also announced it would soon take on 1,000 new members of staff to tackle suspicious ads, and that it was investing more in machine learning to help with automated flagging for ads. And Germany officially put it’s online hate speech law in motion.
A different take on hate
A dating app brought ‘hate’ to light once again as the year came to a close; but in a very unconventional way. The app, called ‘Hater’, matches people based on their dislikes, and when founder Brendan Alper pitched the idea on TV show Shark Tank, he raised $200,000 from entrepreneur Mark Cuban: proof that hate can sometimes unite people in a positive way,
Down under in Australia, to boost its effort to combat revenge porn, Facebook asked users to submit nude photos. The initiative, a partnership with the Australian government, is designed to give control to potential victims in anticipation that their ex-partners would upload compromising content; meaning Facebook would be able to scramble images in the event that they were posted.
And finally, to round off 2017, Google announced that it’ll employ 10,000 new YouTube moderators in 2018 to address ‘content that might violate our policies’ – proof that the World’s biggest tech company continues to prioritise the fight against hate online.
Consumer caution still required
Despite the great leaps forward in AI and authentication across 2017, online scams and e-commerce fraud remain ever-present threats as we move into 2018, there’s still very much a need for both manual and automated content moderation moving forward.
Secondhand sites aren’t going away anytime soon (see eBay’s Cyber Monday stats). They may even help save the planet according to one report. Online retail’s generally thriving too (Amazon had its day on Black Friday). And while the growth of niche sites, combined with as the expansion of big tech players, might put medium-sized marketplaces to up their game to survive, those that proactively build trust online will undoubtedly continue to prosper. And as long as social networks continue to follow suit, hopefully 2018 will see more sites strike the right balance between censorship, security, and safety.