eBay, the dominant auction site, this week took away from users the ability to search auction listings with wildcard keywords, which can be very useful to buyers looking for very specific part numbers or product series. It is (or rather was) easy to store wildcard searches on eBay as a powerful way of drilling down through millions of items as they are listed. No more. And eBay’s reason for eliminating wildcard searches? “Our research showed that using specific terms to expand one’s search was a more effective method than wildcard searches, which oftentimes included unexpected variations that cluttered search results. By removing the wildcard (*) advanced search functionality, we’re able to deliver search results more efficiently and faster.”

Yeah, right.

Yes, it probably is more accurate to list individually all possible permutations of a search term, but if they can be replaced nearly as well with a single asterisk, why make users do it the hard way?

I smell a rat.

A friend of mine who used to work at eBay once claimed their IT infrastructure was so fragile that almost any feature change threatened the site purely through increased comment traffic. That was years ago and I had my doubts then, but why would eBay take an action like this that can only be intended to lower the load on their database?

Another friend who knows a lot more about this than I do says wildcards don’t even add much to the database load. “Sure, they’re more expensive” explained my geeky friend, “but not in some huge way (regex would be a different story). Lucene is a popular out-of-the-box search engine (quite awesome actually) and supports wildcards just fine. Surely with a dev infrastructure like eBay has there’d be zero reason they couldn’t support wildcards effortlessly. In other words, the wildcard thing sounds like a user/business decision which I imagine you have far better conspiracy theories about than I.”

Nope. I’m completely out of ideas why eBay would make this change that appears to be in the classic IT tradition of dealing with the bug by calling it a feature.

What do you think is up?

One more thing… for those who still want to do wildcard searches on eBay, just use Google Advanced Search, which does support wildcards — though only complete word wildcards (not partial words) — and limit the search to ebay.com.