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Online businesses face many challenges these days. Internet users are more sophisticated, and more demanding. And in many markets, they're also very social.

Thanks to the popularity and ubiquity of services like Facebook and Twitter, that means many website owners are compelled to find ways to make their sites more social.

However, going social isn't always easy, and it comes with plenty of risks...

Etsy, a popular community-based marketplace for all things handcrafted, is learning that the hard way after introducing a new People Search feature designed to make it easier for Etsy users to interact.

Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng explains:

Etsy had flipped the switch on its new People Search tool last week as part of its effort to make the site into more of a social media platform. When users run a search for a person's full name, that user's account will show up in the search results, even if that person is only a buyer. The goal is to allow users to connect to each other and create "Circles," which then allow users to see which products their friends have marked as favorites or purchased on Etsy.

Problems immediately began popping up. For one, buyers who had entered their full names into their Etsy profiles in the past were not all aware that the information would become public as a result of the People Search rollout. (Etsy claims it notified users, but numerous Etsy users insisted otherwise.) Then, users began noticing that they could easily look up a buyer's past purchases by searching for their real names, pulling up their profile pages, and examining the feedback left for or by Etsy sellers.

While there can be no doubt that some Etsy users are not happy, according to Etsy's CEO and COO, much of the outrage is unwarranted and "there is a lot of misinformation being spread".

Ignoring the People Search functionality which seems to be what has users most upset, they do acknowledge that users who enter their real names could have their purchases revealed, but they also explained their rationale for the change that allowed this to occur: "we believe that markets are conversations".

When put in historical context, it appears that Etsy, like so many other sites, is looking for ways to become more 'social'.

That is understandable. The general trend on the internet is that services are being made more social, both through homegrown features and integrations with third-parties like Facebook. For obvious reasons, many businesses want to jump on the trend.

But is this always a good thing? If you can make a site more social, should you? The answer: not always.

In the case of Etsy, there's already a vibrant, passionate community that forms a solid base for a promising young business.

Sure, Etsy isn't a 'social network', but Facebook doesn't represent the only kind of community that's possible on the internet. You can build successful communities online without simply adding a sprinkling of standard social networking features. Etsy is already but one example of that.

Naturally, as sites evolve, they should look at the ways new social features can be incorporated. In many cases, these features are a competitive necessity.

But at the same time, the feature mix is more important than the volume of features. For sites that already house impressive communities, the old adage "If it isn't broke, don't try to fix it" may not be the worst strategy.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 March, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2401 more posts from this author

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Eric Wittlake

Etsy says markets are conversations, but ignores the fact that entering a conversation is a choice. Companies should not be imposing their view on customers.

Too many companies today are making decisions like this, eroding the last bit of trust consumers have, and underscoring that the only value and opinion that matters to most companies is their own, not those of their customers or partners.

over 5 years ago

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cory huff

Etsy could do with better transparency all around. Over the last couple of years their efforts at offline community building have been to build 'independent' organizations that teach artists about marketing, but who intentionally leave out any lessons that conflict with Etsy's interests.

Looks to me like a great company that is taking its own success to head.

over 5 years ago

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Midi

This is a very good story. I have heard of plenty of sites planning similar changes and I had always the feeling that problems will turn up. I guess one would need a good op-in or op-out system.

over 5 years ago

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Linda Bustos

As an etsy seller myself, watching new social features being rolled into the site almost daily is interesting, and the "backlash" is to be expected. People comfortable with the way things work on a site are always going to complain initially, then get used to the changes - exactly like Facebook. Whenever Facebook re-designs its UI - things move around, stuff gets added or taken away, and people get upset, form "I hate the new Facebook" groups, blog, tweet, cry in their cereal, etc.

Also, when Facebook has an oversight on the impact on privacy of such changes - people become outraged. Ditto for Etsy. The problem is making things opt-out rather than opt-in, a lesson ALL communities should learn in social network administration 101 ;)

Personally, I can see what Etsy is trying to do and I do believe it makes sense. Find your real world friends on Etsy, follow the stuff they "favorite" and the treasuries they curate, or just follow "influencers" and style gurus, like the other social shopping sites. The marketplace is so huge, there needs to be more methods of product discovery than search/browse and whatever is on the Front Page that hour.

I think it will add value to Etsy in the long run but will take time to A) work out the kinks and B) get users accustomed to the changes, because web users will always balk at changes initially and convince themselves they hate them :)

over 5 years ago

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Barbara

Thank you for this insightful article. I am an Etsy seller. While I don't categorically reject efforts to make Etsy more social, Patricio Robles has made an excellent point--that Etsy historically *already was* a vibrant social community in its own right.

Along with the features reported yesterday by ArsTecnica, Etsy has dismantled the original, long-standing forum system that was the heart of its social community forever. It's simply not there anymore.

I feel this is a big loss. It's certainly a huge morale drain for the longer-term sellers, and new sellers have lost what was once a vibrant support resource for them.

I should note that Etsy still has forums, but the new system is a far cry from the old one.

over 5 years ago

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Rebecca (Etsy username: beckynot)

I too am an Etsy seller. Barbara touched on another aspect of Etsy's recent "social experiment", what Etsy refers to as "forum migration".

The Etsy forums (message boards) used to be public. Any buyer or seller could read or post on any topic. Now, all topics, even discussion of web site glitches, take place in "teams". To post in the vast majority of "team" discussions one has to actually join that team.

The effect is to segregate people on Etsy into their specific crafts or areas of greatest interest. It essentially kills the opportunity for what I've enjoyed most on Etsy, learning.

It also hurt sales, as many sales can be traced to shops being seen in the forums.

It's also counterproductive to Etsy's goal of making the site "social". One is now limited to discussing things strictly within one's team, with people one already knows.

over 5 years ago

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William King

I think in the last week I was having a word on skype with the owner of a very successful business and he was doing business through internet. You know like every newbie I asked about the key of success the first thing he told me was that don't go for the money have the target to serve people through your business and you will surely get success and the second thing he told me is that your success depends upon the relation you have and also the relations of your relations. Make a strong social network and provoke discussions and help people to know each other.

over 5 years ago

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Peter Fernandes

The effect is to segregate people on Etsy into their specific crafts or areas of greatest interest. It essentially kills the opportunity for what I've enjoyed most on Etsy, learning.
========
Peter

over 5 years ago

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g attaway

I bought something on Etsy recently and was immediately sent a code by the seller that if I persuaded friends to use the code to purchase they would receive a discount and I would receive a referral payment from the seller. There was no mention that I had to disclose referral payments when working to persuade my friends to buy off the seller, as if.

If this happens alot then it is difficult to know the true value of conversations, private or otherwise

over 5 years ago

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AGA

The sense of community and the availability of a friendly helping hand from other crafters and sellers has long been one of the best parts of Etsy. Social? Definitely, because we had many things in common, including a common goal to see Etsy and its artisans succeed. Over the past several years, the many changes to move the site toward the 'social network' model have seriously damaged this feeling of community and even our trust that Etsy will continue to act in our best interests. Change must happen but the first step ought to be defining what is good and right and what needs to be fixed. Somedays I think Etsy got it upside down!

over 5 years ago

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Robin

Ever hear the saying "Always be a first rate version of yourself, instead of a second rate version of someone else" ?

Etsy had it down, then they tried to be like Facebook. They failed.

Now with the Ebay-like changes they made with their one sided feedback they failed again.

They had it, then they completely lost it.
It's a total bait and switch and they are hurting the very sellers who built them up.

over 5 years ago

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Maria

Etsy was a leader, they were doing it right. Then they became a follower and everything fell apart.

Etsycorp has poor listening skills, but copious amounts of arrogance. Not a good combination.

over 5 years ago

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Sue

I too am a seller on Etsy. Now that things have changed I do not come to the site as often and have started to let me items expire. Joining a team just to promote does not really do any good since your team members all ready "know" you. The site use to be a fun site now it is just another site to be overlooked by alot of people. I know that I don't have any more lookers or people buying any more so I am kind of wondering why bother any more. Why throw away my hard earned money to some website that is a social website? I can join facebook for that and it if FREE!! Too bad Etsy had to do this to us. I know alot of sellers have gone else where. There are always the ones who will stay and say they like it but..

over 5 years ago

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anna

Etsy should have left the forums alone

over 5 years ago

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anna

Etsy wants to be Facebook. That is the opinion of a vast majority of sellers on Etsy. It can never be facebook or anything like it because people come to etsy to BUY not SOCIALISE, just the same as people go to Facebook to SOCIALISE, not BUY.

Etsy had an organic *social* community amongst sellers (and some buyers who ventured to the forums) until it dismantled the forums

It makes no sense to destroy something organic to make something artificial, and thats what it has done.

They dont concentrate on what needs to be done to improve the site and continually fix things that aint broke. Many sellers on etsy make significant incomes selling their art or craft and Etsy is mucking around with their livelihood.

Etsy, listen to your SELLERS.

over 5 years ago

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creative

Interesting perspective, but it doesn't include the actual history of how the Etsy community developed around a rather simple structure. Instead of weaving this structure into a social strategy, Etsy decided to delete the existing structure and impose an artificial and anti-ecommerce structure that not only stifles the existing community, but encourages shoppers not to shop and buy. By force, Etsy is using a very heavy hand to push people around the site to activities that have nothing to do with shopping. They re-directed to site to something it is not, and it will never fit.
You can certainly cite the time lag between FB changes and user-adoption, but that does not apply to Etsy. Etsy eliminated the existing structure and forced a non-ecommerce structure on the site that makes no sense. Seller confusion is not the only problem -- Etsy is driving away shoppers and sales that will not come back.
It illustrates the fundamental problem at Etsy and why they are incapable of introducing social to the site -- they don't like their sellers, they never have.

over 5 years ago

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drews buttons

There is yet another privacy related issue emerging today (3.21.11). You can find the discussion here:
http://www.etsy.com/teams/7718/site-help/discuss/6826133/page/1

over 5 years ago

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