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Machine Translation and eBay's Attempted Comeback

Original E-Commerce Pioneers 

When eBay was founded in 1995, they were pioneers in the e-commerce arena. They went to IPO just three years later, tripling their stock price on their very first trading day. Since then eBay has lost much of its momentum and popularity. They took too long to move from auctions to fixed-price sales, and consistently failed to update their interface and the technology behind it. While Amazon was solidifying and expanding their markets, eBay was missing trends and falling behind technologically. 

Despite a history of managerial missteps, eBay remains one of the country’s and the world’s largest marketplaces, second in the United States only to Amazon per site visitors. And in recent years eBay has launched a slew of technological initiatives to revive what was once the world’s hottest e-commerce platform. They have been tracking user interests with machine learning, analyzing listings with computer vision and, perhaps most tangibly, generalizing searches with their in-house eBay Machine Translation, or eMT. 

What is eMT? 

eBay’s machine translation framework utilizes machine learning to understand what a block of text or speech is talking about and to translate it into another language or even rephrase it in the same language. Instead of a basic word-for-word translation, eMT breaks down words, sentences and entire pages into their core meaning, understanding their individual roles and the connections between them. It uses pattern recognition and linguistic trends to connect what someone said to what they meant. By understanding the core meaning of a phrase as independent from the specific words used, eBay’s search engine can find relevant listing regardless of their particular wording, language, or dialect. 

Impact of Machine Translation 

What sets machine translation apart from some applications of artificial intelligence in e-commerce is its immediate and tangible effect. eMT landed in Latin America to the tune of a 10.9% sales increase and saw rapid uptake upon its Russian release in 2014. 

Users in affected countries have seen more relevant search results and had access to a wider range of listings. Russian posts appear on English searches and vice-versa, with similar results in Latin America. eBay is using eMT to connect more buyers to more sellers, better capitalize on their wide audience, and leave its users more satisfied. 

eBay’s Other AI Initiatives 

In addition to eMT, eBay has been incorporating several other forms of AI technology into their platform. eBay is using pattern recognition to track and predict user interests and trending items. They are using machine learning to evaluate listed prices to find good deals, and applying computer vision to better understand and categorize listings based on images. 

eBay is not only investing in their AI technology, but also in their AI reputation. The company has gone to great lengths to publicize their ongoing artificial intelligence R&D, with multiple posts on their own blog, as well as some attention-grabbing articles in other publications, like this one from Forbes. eBay recognizes the prominent and growing role that AI plays in today’s world, and needs people to see them as a savvy player in the e-commerce industry if they hope to recover the reputation that rocketed them through their IPO with such smashing success. 

eBay’s Future 

The ability to overcome language barriers is crucial to eBay’s staying power as an international e-commerce platform. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, shipping continues to get faster and cheaper, and communication more fluid, the ability to bring buyers and sellers together around the globe will only continue to become more important. 

It may be too little, too late to return eBay to their early dominance; but if there is any hope for them to catch up to Amazon, it starts with machine translation and other applications of artificial intelligence. The only way for eBay to get back into the spotlight is for them to wow the world with a faster, smarter, friendlier and more robust platform than the competition. With Amazon, Walmart and other major retailers chasing the same bone, it is hard to stay optimistic about eBay’s chances at a comeback. The next few years will tell whether eBay finds their new breakthrough, or whether they become just another story of a once-booming company that failed to keep up with industry trends and technology. 

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