The Secret to Successful Search Terms on eBay, Etsy, and More
05.29.20

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If this story had a doormat, it would say, “THE REST IS SEARCH HISTORY,” and you might ask where I bought it. Welcome. Take a seat. Would you like something to drink? And would you like to hear the whole story of how I tracked down the Murano glass in which your drink is served? If so, you have come to the right place.

The Rest Is Search History stems from my inherent nosiness: I want to hear about other peoples’ hyper-specific search terms, guarded like sapphires at the Smithsonian, their laborious and surprising journeys down various shopping rabbit holes, and the elaborate shopping strategies they’ve honed over time.

Today’s guest is Allie Burns, a remarkably efficient and process-oriented person who knows how to find exactly what you want on the Internet. Her qualifications are impressive: In the past, she’s been able to find a Fendi backpack she stalked for two years and a coveted Miu Miu rain hat. Below, Allie details how to find high-value designer items for low prices on eBay—and how using Etsy like a social network can be the most streamlined way to find what you like.


Allie Burns, advisor in virtual communications and efficiency, vgoodthings.com

You’ve devised a particular system for shopping on eBay, specifically for fashion. Can you walk me through that? How did you cultivate this system? My dad was really into eBay when I was a kid, during the early days of eBay (1998-2002). So I understood eBay’s layout and how to search/filter eBay early. My first eBay purchase was a lot of Betty and Veronica comic books in 1998. I started buying bulk pink North Face fleeces and reselling them on eBay in 2002, making about $22 profit per jacket. I actually found it fun to be in the world of online commerce at a young age.

In college and early in my career (2010 era), I simply could not afford the clothes I wanted to wear. I wanted pleated skirts from the Prada runway, Brunello Cucinelli-level cashmere crop tops, and YSL floor-length dusters, but my wallet wasn’t really in tune with my taste. I spent many late nights browsing eBay (and Etsy and The RealReal), experimenting with search terms and “tricks” to find whatever I wanted in my wardrobe. I started to organize the most effective searches and the most effective methods of searching for a typical item. This developed over time into (1) quite a nice little wardrobe, (2) a reputation as a great gift-giver, and (3) consistent requests to “find something” for a friend.

eBay utilizes some of the same search logic as Google: This is called “Boolean” logic and allows you to use AND, OR, and NOT to get specific on the keywords included in a search. So if I want to see Chloé collection, I have to be very specific with my search, since writing “Chloe” will bring you everything with the word Chloe in it. My search for an item by chloe starts with |(CHLOÉ, chloe) (Phoebe, Philo, stella) -men -mens -see|. This ensures that I am not getting children’s dresses called “the Chloe dress,” nor am I getting See by Chloé, but I’m getting Phoebe Philo or Stella McCartney-era Chloé, which is important.

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At a certain point, I had a long Excel sheet of eBay search URLs that brought in the really good stuff. At the time, I was scraping Net-a-Porter, Barneys, and The RealReal’s designer index pages, then plugging those names into custom URLs. Once you understand Boolean logic and learn the language of an eBay search URL, you can start getting more custom in how you search.

Provided that my search was already filtering against designers appearing on Net-a-Porter (for example), I could search something more simple—like a black coat. For example searching |(coat, jacket, trench) (xs, small, 0, 00, petite) black| into eBay without the designer filter would bring you lots and lots of coats of many questionable qualities. But if you do that same search only against the Net-a-Porter designer index, you start your process with an automatic quality filter. Then you organize this search by watch count (the number of users watching an item) and voilà—you have some coat contenders for fall.

eBay’s search can be organized into an RSS feed through an RSS reader. RSS readers are a bit dated in 2020 (Google Reader discontinued in 2013, for instance), but many still exist: I use feedly.com, for example. You can plug custom searches into an RSS feed and create your own mini widget, for free! I created my first version of this in 2014 and found it extremely helpful. I wasn’t browsing eBay anymore; I was browsing my curated version of eBay.

In 2017, I worked with a fantastic developer to develop selected versions of my RSS feeds to the public through vgoodthings.com. Vgoodthings is a very simple website that runs itself (there’s no customer service or person behind this site), and the search feeds can get a bit wonky (the term “Vetements” was bringing in French auctions of bulk children’s clothes, for a minute). But the site does come through with some rare gems. I used to update the vgoodthings Instagram to show the most iconic items I was finding. It’s been a few years, but I’ll come back to it soon!

I also discovered some sites that had really useful access to “exclusive” eBay API. One of those is collectorsweekly.com, where you can organize a search based on how many people are watching a particular auction. A very helpful way to prioritize a very general search, you get the best items at the top as the “most watched.” Another is haberdashboard.com, which is a site specifically for curating the men’s search of eBay.

Specifically, what kind of fashion items do you search for? And what other items outside of that category have you found via your methods? Almost anything is on eBay. I imagine it can be a bit scary if you have hoarding compulsions. The developer I work with has repurposed the RSS feeds to find specialized music equipment. I’ve used the RSS feed to find rare plant sprouts, limited-edition Dior nail polish colors, cheap printer ink, Dolly Parton photo prints, ’80s runway invitations, Levi’s of a very particular quality for my boyfriend, forgotten dot-com-bubble branded T-shirts, and so on.

Do you keep a running list of things you’re on the lookout for (I imagine probably eBay alerts?) or is it more intuitive, like when you come across something you’d like to buy, you implement your process? A bit of both. I have RSS feeds always running against searches I’m interested in at that moment. For instance, right now I’m looking for luxury designer board games or decks of cards as a gift for someone, and I have that search plugged into all the tools with alerts.

Any other tricks for tracking things down online? When should I use eBay, and when should I search for something on Etsy or The RealReal instead?

For eBay

If you are looking for the lowest possible price for the highest quality items (i.e. you have $10 to buy something worth $1.5K), eBay delivers. It is high risk, high reward. There are sellers who don’t know the value of what they are selling, or they do what is called a “fat finger” and spell Ann Demeulemeester wrong (happens a lot) and no one can find their auction so a pair of $1,000 boots sells for $25. That’s where eBay is unique and especially rewarding.

I recommend only shopping eBay for one-size-fits-all items or items that can run the risk of being oversized without sacrificing “the look” (like jackets and sweaters). I rarely use eBay to find good shoes because it’s too much of a risk in terms of fit.

eBay is also a great place to find reference imagery or archival content. Their website only saves imagery for 30 days but it can be a great source for unique content if you are in a pinch.

For Etsy

I love Etsy for simple and harmless online browsing. In 2012, Etsy was truly for crafts, but over the years it’s developed a fantastic selection of vintage designer pieces.

Etsy also includes what I call “favorite tree links.” Located at the very bottom of the product page in fine print, Etsy links to “26 favorites,” or however many people also favorited the same item. This link takes you to a list of users who favorited said item, and then you can browse like-minded people’s favorites from there. Let’s say I spend three hours trying to find the perfect lamp shade, and you, on the other side of the world, are also trying to find the perfect lamp shade. Then it’s quite beneficial if you stumble across my endless lamp shade favorites and save yourself those three hours of cold-searching lamp shades. And if you like my taste, now you can just browse everything that I like! But beware: It seems like Etsy might be trying to phase this out, as they move the link to view who favorited a product farther and farther away from the above-the-fold eyeline.

For The RealReal

Once I had grown up a bit and more dollars to my name, I started to gravitate more to The RealReal for high-price items that I could not risk buying on eBay. The RealReal allows you to return an item without much hassle (in 15 days). This means I can buy something, and if it does not fit, I can return it, which can feel revolutionary when you’re used to shopping eBay or Etsy. That being said, you will not run into $3 dollar Helmut Lang skirts on The RealReal. The prices on The RealReal speak to the true value: less risk, less reward.

Is there anything Allie Burns can’t find?!? This chrome plant potter, TBD. My boyfriend and I were debating on the name of a particular house plant, and I was using Google Images to show him the scientific name. This image showed up in the search results and caught our attention—not for the plant (although the plant is beautiful) but for the particular silver planter housing the plant.

I started by Googling keywords to find it like |(pot, planter) (chrome, silver, metallic) (round, circular) and “large”|. I probably spent an hour before realizing that the word “large” needed to be mandatory. I found some planters that were close, so I reversed-image searched those to get a bit closer. All of this was via Google. At a certain point, I went on eBay and Etsy to search the same keywords but wasn’t getting any closer. By then it had been about 2.5 hours, and I was frustrated.

I started over, went back to the original article that posted this photo and realized the designers were in Amsterdam, so I started including the keywords in Dutch and French within my search. I also targeted domains ending in .nl, .de and .fr to get some new results. This led me to something very close to the planter in the photo, but it was sold out, and I knew it still wasn’t the exact one.

After talking to a magazine editor and an interior designer about it, I finally resorted to what I could have done in the beginning: sending an Instagram message to the architects that seemingly own the planter, politely inquiring where I could find it. Now I patiently await their response.

I have reason to believe this is a custom piece, but if someone can find it, I want to meet them because I have a lot to learn from that person.

I did find many other great planters along the way, so in the end all was not lost. We did purchase a planter from eBay through this experience. It looks nothing like the one we wanted but perfectly complimented a smaller plant that needed repotting.

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Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

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