July 30, 2010

New releases from Inga Wind

Inga Wind just released two new color ways for her very stylish "Jackie" and "Kelly" outfits. Jackie in orange is very striking. Ready for business but with a nod to fun! Kelly in navy is what I might call "cocktail caberet". It sort of has a French can-can grrl look but still modern and tres chic. $250L and $300L respectively.

SLURL to: Inga Wind Clothing.

July 28, 2010

Hope for Second Life Marketplace?

I had a long chat with Brodesky Linden last night which I think was productive and somewhat eye-opening. Brodesky corrected me on a few things I put in my previous blog post while giving me some sense of what Linden Lab plans for Second Life Marketplace. He also took some of my suggestions to heart and indicated that you might see them in the next iteration of the SL Marketplace beta. I'm not going to detail some of the things that were a bit "internal" to the Lab but I will tell you that I thought Brodesky was being as honest and straight with me as he possibly could. One thing he did make clear was that the 30% layoff at the Lab has hit them all really hard. We were chatting up to around 11:00 pm SLT and Brodesky was still working (via laptop at a cafe). Most of the development folks are working 18-hour days. :(

One thing Brodesky mentioned was that, while he might not have wanted to put the beta out so soon, the Lab did convert over 1.2 million listings and perhaps 30K of those didn't come over correctly. But of course, the 30K that got fouled up generated a lot of negative posts and a ton of tickets.

Also, he told me there are 100 merchants of all different sizes participating in the design & beta of the Marketplace -- but the reason you don't know what their feedback is or how things are being incorporated is because they're all under NDAs.

So here we go on some specrfics (I hope I got all these correct):
  1. Formatting for listings. The "no BBCode" statement is a final, however that doesn't mean that some form of editor for offering limited formatting might not be included. Bullets (& numbering??) may be added right off. Bolding and italics maybe. However, it's pretty clear that LL is not going to back away from the uniform look and feel they want in the marketplace.
  2. Custom fields. My comment was that if you couldn't do a lot of formatting for a listing, you needed to make up for it more fields for information. This seemed like a good idea to Brodesky -- we'll see where it goes.
  3. Color / size options. Not sure we really pinned this down but it sounds like there are plans to implement something along this line.
  4. Picture formats. I was not aware that 512x512 is now allowed and will not be scaled.
  5. Picture limitations. The limit of 8 probably won't change in the short term however they are looking into some way of addressing texture vendors and their unique problems. Coverflow was mentioned as a possible solution (I have no idea what that really is). :)
  6. Object ID and updates. Many of concerns voiced by creators like me who have versioned objects seem to have been heard. They are looking at some way of handling these uniquely. The primary concern at the Lab seems to be preventing "gaming" through bait and switch of high rated items with junk. Personally I've never come across this in all my years of shopping OnRez, SLX and XStreet so I'm not sure if it isn't a solution in search of a real problems. Regardless, I was pretty adamant that we needed SOME way of preserving good ratings and reviews for items that simply change via bug fixes or added features. One issue is that LL would really like to get rid of Magic Boxes. However, that's what allows you to sub a product in name only.
  7. Search. Haha, we never got around to discussing it.
  8. Networked vendors. There seems to be a split internally about what to do about these. No conclusion here. 
  9. Storefronts. The new URLs will consolidate all of a merchant's items. And the product listings will be SEO-friendly. We also discussed having something like  /snickerssnook or /snickers.snook also point to all of the merchant's items. However, due to uniqueness requirements, no custom store names for this. :(
  10. Video vs. GIF89a. Clearly the Lab-rats don't like GIF89a for product demos. It's a design issue, not technical. However, they are open to embedding video from a trusted site (like YouTube) in listings to give better product information. I thought may they could allow ONE animated GIF and all others must be static formats.
  11. More categories -- suggestions wanted! Finally, Brodesky challenged little old me to suggest more categories that could be included in the Marketplace. I'm not sure I'm the best for this. So, if you have any suggestions for categories, post your list up here and I'll pass them along. Or I'm sure Brodesky would take them in a notecard -- or a JIRA could be created.
  12. Multiple categories. I hit this point several times. We need a way to have ONE product appear in more than one category. I don't care if the Lab charges a premium for each extra one. It would cut down some clutter AND increase sales. I could see limiting it to a maximum of three. However, category abuse should be a reportable offense.
  13. Abusive reviews. We both agreed that some way of flagging abusive or inappropriate reviews needs to be found. I know there are lots of ways to handle this -- from a flagging system to "this review was helpful or not" system. I think a merchant advisory board could handle this.
So there you have it. Very long chat and hopefully things are being nudged in a better direction. That said, the proof is always in the pudding, or prims, or plywood cube. Until things actually happen, you're never 100% convinced. But I'm a shade more optimistic now. :)

July 25, 2010

Second Life Marketplace -- headed for failure?

Historical perspective

First some background. I've been creating and selling virtual goods since mid-2007. Shortly after I opened my first shop inworld, I created a web-based store at OnRez. (For those who don't remember, OnRez was created as an alternative to SL Exchange (SLX) which at the time, was the main web-based site for virtual goods shopping.) After roughly six months of moderate sales through OnRez, I put all my items on SLX too. Between the two, I did pretty well. In fact, my web-based sales soon outstripped my inworld sales by 3 to 1.

Since I had started with OnRez, I could really see the difference between the two platforms. While OnRez always seemed to me the more organized and elegant venue, SLX clearly had the critical mass of shoppers that made it more viable. As things progressed, my OnRez sales dropped to maybe one-fifth those of SLX. But I always remember thinking how great it would be if someone could take OnRez' good points (real merchant storefronts, customizable product listings, excellent search, working filters) and combine them with SLX's (mass listings, templates, ratings systems, etc.).

So it was with both great anticipation and trepidation that I took the news that Linden Lab had bought both SLX (changed to XStreet SL) and OnRez. For sure the lack of real competition would be a negative, but the potential for the Lab to combine the features of the two services would be a real positive for both customers and merchants!

Alas (and alack), twas not to be the case. All that happened was that OnRez was closed down and XStreet SL was allowed to "bump" along with virtually no changes other than the XStreet merchant forums were closed and forced into a raggedy migration into the SL blogrums.

The dreaded "Freebies Roadmap"

The first hints of real change to XStreet SL came with the abrupt announcement by Commerce Team leader, Colossus Linden, of the "Freebies Roadmap" --an ill-conceived and poorly thought-out plan to treat freebies as "advertising" and charge significant monthly listing fees. While there was some merit to the idea in general, it was presented as a solution to solve the problem of "stale listings". And, it was "sold" as something that merchants had been adamantly demanding.

You would have thought the gates of Hell had been torn open. Between the organized protests at Commerce & Pink's office hours (I participated in one myself) and the posts in the Merchant and public forums, it was clear there was really very little solid support for what Colossus outlined. In fact, the reality was a handful of large merchants had been pushing to remove freebies altogether (so they wouldn't rob sales). Colossus' solution would have still allowed them but it would have been so prohibitively expensive that only those same large merchants could have afforded to offer them. Plus, they would have been completely crippled by being hidden in their own separate area of XStreet SL -- segregated from regular listings -- that even their value as advertising vehicles would have been minimal.

In spite of the numerous calls for a rethink by an overwhelming number of shoppers and merchants alike, Colossus' and Pink's attitudes were essentially -- it's done, we don't need to listen, it's our way or the highway. What really annoyed most of us as merchants was that the Freebies Roadmap did nothing to advance the usability of XStreet SL. In fact, it was perceived by most as a solution to a problem that really didn't exist.

The real problems with XStreet SL

So what were (and are) the real problems with XStreet SL?? Here are my thoughts -- in no particular order of priority.
  1. Search has been "broken" for a long time. What you search for is rarely what shows up in results. While there are advanced search techniques available, the average customer of XStreet SL isn't aware of them and gets easily frustrated by what's returned by the default.
  2. Inadequate listing categories. Some items, such as clothing, receive relatively high levels of granularity while others, such as textures, get none. Textures for fabric, builds, landscape, clothing, etc. all get lumped into one meta category. Categories are often capricious. In addition, there is no way of listing one item across multiple categories. For example, one of my items can be listed in Chat Devices, Babies or Humorous. But not all three like it should be.
  3. No way to combine product listings based on color or size variations. For example, one style of stiletto heels may be offered in 20 different colors. Yet, the merchant has to create 20 separate listings for each color variation. The same holds for other product variants such as size or perms. This problem is awful when applied to inexpensive merchandise. I can't tell you how annoying it is to wade through literally 30 or more (awful) $10L bikinis that vary only in color when a simple customizable dropdown could reduce 30 to 1 listing.
  4. Ratings system is easily gamed. While ratings are a good idea and generally helpful, they can be gamed positively through artificial buying or from malicious efforts by competitors. Plus there's no way to pull a bad rating once one's been given regardless of how it came about in the first place.
  5. Listings with little or no sales activity are allowed to stay up forever. This is one of the problems the Freebies Roadmap was supposed to address. However, regular purges of items not selling for 6 months or for merchants who haven't logged into SL for 6 months would have solved the problem with far less angst.
  6. No merchant storefront capability. OnRez let merchants create virtual storefronts for their products. You got a dedicated URL (www.onrez.com/snickers in my case) that was a nice landing page that showed everything I sold by category. XStreet only offers an obscure Merchant ID number and there is no landing page.
  7. Incoherent and inconsistent listing "enhancements". The cost / benefits to different types of listing enhancements are totally out of whack. While some are effective, others, especially those in the clothing categories, are useless simply due to lack of granularity. It's like trying to boldface an ad on Craigslist when every other ad is already boldfaced.
  8. No real partnership between customers, merchants and Linden Lab personnel. Ever since Linden Lab took over XStreet SL, the "Commerce Team" has seemed hell bent on straining what little relations existed between the average online merchant. Further, the interaction with those team members has been contentious, one-way and arrogant. This "attitude" continues to this day even in responses to JIRA requests and bug reports dealing with XStreet SL / SL Marketplace issues. Clearly, the Lab has only been listening to very large merchants while actual customers have all but been ignored.
  9. An ill-considered attempt to put product wishlists onto Facebook. In spite of  a resounding chorus of "don't waste your time" comments by merchants in the forums, the Commerce Team went ahead and tried (but never really succeeded) to put product wishlists into Facebook. Obviously they never considered that Facebook doesn't allow avatars as users making it a futile exercise from the start. Yet even after being told that, they went ahead anyway. The plug was pulled thank god.

Now a couple things that Linden Lab has done right with XStreet SL is to merge the payment system so you can pay for an item on XStreet SL with your regular SL account AND to promote using XStreet SL to residents. Oh and the Freebies Roadmap was ultimately abandoned due to "technical problems" (but most of us think they realized how ill-considered it was).

And now, the Second Life Marketplace beta

So naturally, one would think going forward, that Linden Lab would look at the landscape of what's available for real life shopping, see what the strong points of OnRez were, see what the strong points of XStreet SL are, and then find out what merchants want and what customers want. BZZZZZZZZTTT. WRONG!!

None of that happened. In fact, the FIRST hint of what was to come with SL Marketplace was when merchants were TOLD they needed to resize all their product photos because the Marketplace would only support images with one fixed aspect ratio. At first, it was going to be 5:4 which caused all sorts of screams from merchants since it's not even a normal SL ratio or real life shopping ratio. Ultimately the ratio was fixed at 4:3 (700 x 525) but it was still a thumb in the eye for most merchants since 90% of all product and package photos are square due to square packages inworld AND due to the fixed ratios for inworld uploads. Oh and you're also now limited to just 8 pictures per listing.

The next clue that bad things were happening was when merchants were told to REMOVE all BBcode and HTML formatting from their product descriptions in preparation for the migration to the SL Marketplace. This was (and is) a killer. Imagine a product listed on Amazon or eBay without bolding, italics, bullets, numbered lists, font changes, underlines, block quotes or links. Yep, that's your new Marketplace. Sterile and wiped clean of any ability to create readable listings for users. One of my own listings has become unreadable in its migration to beta. Coupled with a new limit of 5000 characters for listings, many merchants are starting to throw in the towel.

Oh I forgot to mention -- the rationale for taking this huge step backwards in flexibility over listings is supposedly about creating a more "predictable experience" for the customer. Well I can tell you that NOT one customer I've talked to or read forum posts from thinks this new experience is better. To a person, they all think it's much, much worse.

There are currently some 50+ pJIRAs connected through a meta issue dealing with the new restrictions Linden Lab has put in place. Yet, those working on the SL Marketplace have indicated absolutely ZERO willingness to backtrack and they continue to move toward a less-capable, less-user and merchant friendly web market.

For example, here's a JIRA to restore some sort of formatting ability to listings. In spite of 104 votes for it plus some very rational arguments in favor, the issue was summarily closed by Linden Lab and Brodesky Linden made one comment, "Sorry no bbcode in the site." No reasons, no other comments. He effectively dismissed everyone's concerns with an imperious wave of his keyboard.

Now, one of the biggest issues of all has just cropped up and that's the inability for the new Marketplace to handle "product upgrades". In the past, when a merchant has upgraded a product (like offering a new feature or a script that fixed some bugs), all you had to do was drop the new version into the magic box. As long as the item name was the same, the new version became the new item. NOW, it appears that because the item has a different Object ID, it is going to be treated as a new and different item!!! This means that any product ratings or reviews the item had will no longer apply to the new version!

TOTAL INSANITY!!! I sell a scripted product (Evil Pregnant Tummy Talker) that I've made numerous improvements to. Some are bug fixes, some are actual added features. The product has ALWAYS received 90% 5 star reviews and currently is rated about 4.75 stars. For me to LOSE that rating and all the reviews tied to it just because I added a new feature is just crazy!! Yet, Linden Lab's code rats aren't taking this into account in the new Marketplace. GRRRRR!!!!

Closing thoughts

The Second Life Marketplace beta has shown that instead of moving forward with all the wonderful possibilities for virtual shopping, Linden Lab seems to be moving backwards -- choking the life out of their own platform. And so far, virtually NONE of the good suggestions offered by merchants and customers (ie. those outlined above as XStreet SL limitations) have been put into place.

Where are the multiple product listings? Real storefronts? Flexible listings? Formatting? Working search? All of the things merchants have wanted for years aren't there, but a slew of new technical and policy limitations are. That's not progress. Plus, a LOT of merchants are very disheartened over a "we know better than you" attitude coming from members of the Commerce Team and those responsible for developing Second Life Marketplace.

I sincerely WANT the Marketplace to succeed. If the Marketplace succeeds, I'll make more $L, customers will be happier and Linden Lab will make more real money. So my suggestions and comments are really designed to push in the direction that I and a lot of my fellow merchants see as necessary for that success.

P.S. Philip Rosedale, I hope you're listening 'cuz teh Lab got some 'splainin' to do. You need to kill Mark Kingdon's "predictable user experience" mantra and do it quickly. People didn't join Second Life for predictable experiences. We joined to let our creativity shine.

July 19, 2010

Help organize my blog!

I just noticed today that my arbitrary "tagging" of articles I've written has gotten out of hand. Tags or labels as Blogger calls them, are how content sort of gets organized. After getting rid of all the single occurrence labels, I noticed that some, like "second life" applied to almost everything I write about (although not all). You can see the results of my cleanup in the "cloud" listing of topics in the right-hand column.

So the question for all you who bother to read my ramblings, what sorts of labels would make more sense to you? How would YOU like to see my blog organized? Are there other labels you think would make more sense? I don't organize this thing into discrete page areas and ain't about to. So give me your thoughts on how I should use labels. Thanks!!!

Shut down Second Life's web-based shopping!!!

To be clear up front, this is not what I want to do!

But I'm frankly surprised by the increasing number of people in the Second Life forums (blogrums) who are calling for Linden Lab to do exactly that. They seem to think that closing XStreet SL / SL Marketplace (and by extension, Apez or any other third-party shopping site) will be some kind of magic bullet that will restore the wonders of in-world shopping to its former, pre-web glory days. I say "only in your lag-induced dreams people."

Numbers don't lie.

As a part-time merchant who first began selling my clothing creatins inworld and then expanded to OnRez when some big merchants like Simone Stern did, I've always seen the majority of my sales coming from the web alternatives. Whether via OnRez or SLX/XStreet/SL Marketplace, sales of my products consistently do much better via the web than in-world.
Some of this is traffic related. When my shop has been in a busy area, I do better. But even at my best locations (the mall outside of Blackhearts Cafe and a brief stint in the New York sim), in-world sales never passed web sales. I've been told I have a really nice looking store and the packaging is pretty good so I think it's really just a difference in medium. Many of my products in fact, are more suited to the detailed, extended presentations offered by XStreet SL.

When I pulled ALL of my items off XStreet SL for a month in protest over Colossus Linden's "Freebies Roadmap", my sales (and those of my fellow merchants who did likewise) plummeted in spite of the extra promotion I threw at the in-world location.

So what's wrong with in-world sales?

In-world (store-based) sales suffer from some very real limitations that often make the web-based shopping experience better for the average Second Life customer. A few come to mind:
  • Broken search
  • Lag
  • Poor display paradigms for many products
  • No ratings or reviews
  • No filtering or price sorting
  • Higher barriers to entry for new creators
Second Life has been plagued by crummy search for a long time. Whether it's due to traffic gaming or the inability for the Google search engine to effectively find what people are looking for, there's no denying that for most, search just doesn't return good, relevant results. Search for "babydoll dresses" and you're just as likely to end up with a dance club or some BDSM place as you are with actual outfits.

Lag is a big issues for me. My time in SL is valuable and if a store takes 15 minutes to fully rez, I'm not going to stay.

Many products (technical ones for example) don't lend themselves to the "picture-on-a-box-plus-notecard" approach that inworld presentations largely limit you to. Detailed, in-context listings with multiple photos and text (even with the 5000 character limit) are for more useful to many shoppers than camming through endless walls of unsorted, unfilterable, unrezzable items. I sell 20 Evil Tummy Talkers via the web for every ONE that I sell inworld. The added listing features of web-based presentations including sorting by price or relevance, product ratings & reviews and the ability to easily "gift" something clearly put web-based virtual goods shopping out in front of in-world shopping for MOST people.

And finally, for new creators, setting up a web-based presence is much less expensive and generally lower in maintenance than trying to create a quality in-world presence. It's time-consuming to build a store and the extra costs for land or rental often make the difference between profit and loss.

What's right with in-world sales?

This is not to say that there isn't a place for in-world sales. Of course there is. I love to find that special store or sale. If the lag is OK, it's more interesting shopping for something physically than it is looking through a catalog (although the usual "picture-on-a-box" presentation doesn't make the difference all that great). And for certain items, like furniture, builds, hair or skins, there's NO substitute for seeing the item rezzed in-world. Sure you can buy a demo from XStreet SL, but it's just not as seamless as playing with it in-world.

Snick's conclusions

What really needs to happen with BOTH in-world sales and web-based sales are improvements to the engines that power both. Right now, if the SL Marketplace beta is any indication of where Linden Lab is going with web-based sales, creators and customers alike are in for a greatly REDUCED selling and shopping experience. And unless the Lab can address tier costs, lag and search in meaningful ways, the same can be said for in-world sales.

July 17, 2010

Back to the Basics - Philip (Rosedale) Linden

Interesting after-hours blog post from Philip Linden. Of course it raises more questions than it answers but at least it signals an awareness that the underpinnings for Second Life (server code and Viewer 2) are in serious need of fixing.

I'm optimistic about the comments regarding making Viewer 2 the best. People forget that Philip actually uses SL and Snowglobe was largely his side project. Most experienced users and content creators hate Viewer 2 and opt for Emerald instead. Believe me, if Viewer2 could do 3/4 of what Emerald can do, I'd drop Emerald in a heartbeat just because of the trust issue.

As to the server side stuff, I'm less optimistic there. So many things have been ignored in the JIRAs that it will take major triage to address those things that residents think are important and even more work sorting through what the Lab thinks is cool vs. what's needed. The promise of faster iterations in software also seem to me a pipe dream -- especially with less staff.

My personal concern, being a part-time content creator and full-time fashionista, is what happens to both in-world and web-based content sales (XStreet / SL Marketplace). Linden Lab has royally screwed up the web-based markets and shows no signs of ever doing those right. In buying both XStreet (SLX) and OnRez one thinks they would have taken the best features of both to create their new platform. Instead, they started over from scratch with a hacked together combination of open source junk and incompetent design to come up with the Second Life Marketplace beta. The results have even the most ardent Lab fanbois & fangrrls screaming bloody murder.

Likewise, it seems that no matter what the Lab does to address search, concurrency, lag, photos, postcards, chat and groups, it just keeps getting worse. Plus, the ever-escalating hardware requirements further isolate Second Life. Getting rid of mentors and helpers shows the Lab's cluelessness about customer retention. Installing Jive SBS (Clearspace) to replace functioning forums was clearly an answer in search of a question no "customer" had asked (and of course, only made the problems worse).

And finally, the arrogance with which some Lab members (Wallace and Colossus in particular come to mind) treated customers (residents) only underscored an almost "us vs. them" mentality that I think was allowed to fester under Mark Kingdon.

I personally hope Second Life can succeed and that Philip can follow through. Lovely blog posts are not enough. We as residents really do need to be involved in the overall direction of SL and the tactics used to get there. We need to feel like real customers. Above all, we need results.