Mid Century, Keyword Spam, and Melanesia.

I love mid-century design. I do. Simple, clean lines, geometry and proportion over ornamentation, minimal if you will. Even as a child, I’d see pictures of my grandparent’s house from the 1950s and 1960s and I was transfixed by the distinction between most furniture I saw in the 1980s. By the 1980s, tastes of the mass market had moved on to more “traditional,” stuffy styles of furniture, at least in my surroundings. Those who had antiques had Victorian styles. Everything was, well, maximal.

As a high school senior in 1999, I had a plan to move into my first apartment for college. I knew that I needed some furniture, and I happened upon a vinyl and metal couch in a junk shop. The label said “1950s Couch and Chair, $75.” Price was right and the style was… cool. It was low, clean-lined and really different than what I was used to. I borrowed the money from my dad and loaded it up. My grandmother contributed some furniture to my first apartment that she had stashed away in her attic that matched the style. It was great.

A couple of years later I had been selling things on eBay during my off time at college. I had a digital camera (relatively rare at that time) and people would pay me a few bucks to photograph and post their items. On a whim, I looked up the couch on eBay and saw an identical one on auction as an “Eames Chromcraft Couch Retro.” I looked up these Eames fellows (another thing I got wrong) and I thought I had got quite a bargain.

What was happening, and still happens, is that the seller had decided to stuff as many keywords into the item title to ‘fool’ the eBay search engine into returning results for an unrelated item. The couch / chair in question [I’m pretty sure] is a Viko set, but it is unmarked and definitely not Eames. When the seller listed the similar item, they just threw in as many keywords as possible to “catch” anyone searching for those terms.

I understand this from the standpoint of someone running the auction — it gets more eyeballs on your items. But this degrades the entire collecting process. Here are a few problems with keyword stuffing:

  • New buyers can be easily fooled into paying way more for something that just isn’t worth it in quality or collectability.
  • Sellers may expect an item to bring a higher price because of confusing attribution of other like items.
  • The process of searching for items takes longer than needed and is based on photos rather than text.
  • It confuses the process of item identification.
  • It’s against eBay’s policy (as Keyword Spamming)

This is one of the reasons that I created Mid Century Spot — the amount of bull that can be found around eBay and craigslist is thick. I wanted a way to cut through the keyword stuffed and misattributed listings to find just information — something that is hard to find when even Google results are filled with those selling rather than those informing.

So, what does a keyword stuffed auction look like? Here are a few examples of eBay keyword stuffed auction titles:

  • “VTG MID CENTURY DANISH MODERN ELEGANT ROSEWOOD COFFEE TABLE JUHL EAMES ERA” [Isn’t Danish; Has nothing to do with Finn Juhl or Charles / Ray Eames; In the description the lister says that they have one table, on a different listing, that is made in Denmark.]
  • “MCM Broyhill desk 50’s 60’s Danish modern Brasilia Sculptura style” [Not Danish; is it a Brasilia desk or is it Sculptura? Cheater word “style” appended to the listing.]
  • “Mid Century Modern Coffee Table Lane Rhythm Side Square Acclaim Drexel” [Just read it — it makes no sense. The pictures clearly show a “Lane” makers mark, why list Drexel? Is it a coffee table or a side table? Is it in the Rhythm or Acclaim line?]
  • “Vintage Pair of Mid Century Modern,Eames Era,Danish,Wood,Adrian Pearsall? Lamps” [Nothing to do with Eames. Nothing indicates that it is Danish. Love the question mark after Pearsall. In the description the lister puts “looks like Adrian Pearsall design, but you be the judge”]

On craigslist, it can be worse. eBay seems to have cleaned up it’s act in the last few years and is doing a better job at catching outright blocks stuffed with keywords. Not so on craigslist (even though it is prohibited). One seller on the New York CL puts pretty much the same block of keywords on every listing. Here is the keyword block in all it’s glory, copied / pasted from a listing for a Eames Lounge Chair (which, I’m guessing, is a repo as they don’t do much description on the item itself):

Ralph, eames, knoll, modern, rustic, antique, Starck, Eames, Saarinen, Mies Van de Rohe, Knoll, Modern, classic, Eames Mid Century, Mid-century modern, danish, retro, vintage, room & board, herman miller keywords:
Modern, mid century modern, mid-century, MCM, retro, vintage, Danish Modern, teak, 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Scandinavian, Gunni Omann Junn, Arne Vodder, Arne Jacobsen, Kai Kristiansen, Hans Wegner, Borge Mogensen, Ole Wanscher, Peter Lovig Nielsen, Dansk, Jens Risom, Design Within Reach, Paul McCobb, George Nelson, Jens Quistgaard, Adrian Pearsall, Craft Associates, Milo Baughman, Thayer Coggin, Broyhill Brasilia, Kent Coffey, American of Martinsville, Lane, Hooker Mainline, Svend Madsen, Niels Moller, Kofoed Hornslet, Niels Kofoed, Faarup, George Mulhauser, Charles Eames, Bruno Mathsson, Edward Wormley, Dunbar, Drexel Declaration, Kipp Stewart, Stewart MacDougall, Lane Acclaim Johannes Andersen Denmark, Frem Rojle, Lawrence Peabody. Dux Folke Ohlsson Herman Miller Peter Protzman Charles Pollock Sling Chair Eero Saarinen Tulip Table Aluminum Group Soft Pad Ray Charles, Arteluce Gino Sarfatti, Carl Aubock, Knoll Charles Pollock Jane Gordon Martz Marshall Harry Bertoia Bird Diamond Chair, rosewood, teak, Lawrence Peabody, credenza, crate and barrel, retro, chest, Dansk, calvin group, Vladimir Kagan, fifties, sixties, seventies, office, Dania Collection, Selig, Folke Ohlsson Kartel , Danish modern, CSS Wall Unit, Poul Cadovious, ESU, Eames Storage Unit, 50s Wall Unit, Retro Shelves, Vintage clock, Nils Strinning.

Yep. I’d say that about covers everything. Most of those pretty much have nothing to do with the item and I even question the effectiveness of it all — do you really thing someone who is searching for “crate and barrel credenza” is looking for that item a Eames lounge?

So, it’s a problem. From the perspective of the sellers, I get it, you’re trying to make a buck. But how effective is it really?

Melanesia

I promise this relates, stay with me. Melanesia is a group of islands in Oceania, in the area north / east of Australia and due north of New Zealand. On some of these islands when westerners made first contact in the late 1800s until the middle of the 20th century (and especially during WWII), a curious religion emerged. This first contact must have been a shaking experience for the islanders, being exposed to new, unknown people with manufactured goods of exotic [to them] materials. From their, then-isolated, perspective at first contact, these items and people could be viewed as spiritual and / or miraculous. During WWII, items were literally dropped from the sky to these islands to support the stationed or forthcoming troops. Seeing these events as spiritual occurrences, some islanders mimicked the drills of the previously observed soldiers as a religious rituals, attempting to gain more “cargo.” Anthropologists call these beliefs “cargo cults.”

I’m a software developer by trade and the term cargo cult gets thrown around — it refers to the ritualistic inclusion of code by programmers that don’t fully understand what they are adding to the program or why. Generally, these well meaning but inexperienced programmers are trying anything to get their software to work. If they add code to the program and it works, then they tend to add that code where it doesn’t belong elsewhere too.

So, how does this relate back to mid century stuff? I think that many sellers tend to add these keywords to items because it’s worked before. Drawing the parallel, if a seller has added “Atomic Eames Era Knoll” to an item and it fetched top dollar one time, why not add it another? These keywords are, in effect, rituals.

Caveat Emptor

I read an early draft of this piece to my wife, she said “Does it matter? What if I searched for a credenza and I ended up buying a chair because of keyword stuffing.” She’s got a good point, but I think there is a bigger issue here — we’re dealing with a situation where the sellers are manipulating the buyers, even if on a small level. The market place isn’t fully fair or transparent when the results are being manipulated. Most of us would agree that we’d like to live in a society where those who follow the rules are rewarded, not those who rig the game.

Sure, it’s up to the buyer to make sure what they are purchasing is what they want, but when the listings are unclear and the information floating around the internet is dominated by sellers all playing this keyword spamming game, how can a buyer be reasonably informed? It’s hard especially when you consider that most buyers are now used to information heavy buying experiences (think Amazon).

Fixing the keyword problem

As a buyer:

  • Don’t buy items with keyword spam. It only encourages the practice.
  • Don’t feel bad about reporting items with keyword spam to craigslist or eBay.

As a seller:

  • Research your items, provide links to non-sales based sites that backup your claims
  • Avoid cheater words, question marks, etc.
  • List items truthfully and fully yet succinctly

What do you think? Is keyword spam just part of the process of buying mid century stuff? Or should we expect more out of sellers?