May 14, 2007

Enhancing eBay with Firefox extensions

Author: Nathan Willis

eBay is a great way to acquire hard-to-find collectibles. Trouble is, the best deals are often found in auctions that end in the middle of the night. When that happens, the Biet-O-Zilla (BOZ) extension for Firefox can help you, by tracking auctions and scheduling bids in advance.

You can install BOZ from its page on the official Mozilla Addons site, but the version hosted there is outdated (release 0.4.6, from 2005). The latest version is 0.8.3, and is available from the developer's BOZ Web site. BOZ is compatible with current, 2.0.0.x versions of Firefox.

Once you have installed the extension and restarted Firefox, BOZ creates a menu item for itself in the top-level Applications menu. This is an atypical location; most extensions use the Tools menu instead. If the placement really bothers you, there are menu editor extensions with which you can change it.

When you launch BOZ itself, it opens its own window. From top to bottom, there are three menus, a toolbar, the main list of auction items you're tracking, and a status area. The first thing you will want to do is set up your account info through the Window -> Options menu item. Here you can select which eBay site to use, set your account username and password, and the default "pounce" time that you want BOZ to wait for before issuing a bid.

Some people have an ethical quarrel with the practice of "sniping" auctions -- waiting until the last possible second before an auction closes before bidding, thus hoping to win it by not allowing other bidders the chance to outbid. To me that behavior is an unfortunate side effect of eBay's proxy bidding and artificially time-limited auctions.

The sad fact is that people do snipe, and you may lose auctions to them or have your winning bid driven up at the last second because of them. You can use BOZ to snipe auctions yourself by setting a very low pounce time in the options, but be forewarned: BOZ does not guarantee that your bid will go through. If you set it to bid five seconds before the end of every auction and the authentication step hangs just a little bit, it could mean a missed opportunity.

Getting down to bidness

After you set up your account info, BOZ will log in to eBay behind the scenes and populate the main window with all the items on your watch list. That includes ended auctions, but you can remove them with a command under the Actions menu. By default the auction list is sorted by time remaining. The Current Bid column lists the going price, highlighting auctions that you are winning in green and those that you are losing in red.

To make a bid, you click on an item, then enter a bid amount in the toolbar at the top, confirming it with either the "Bid now" or "Last minute" buttons. To cancel a scheduled bid, clear the bid amount and re-click on one of the confirmation buttons. Scheduled bids appear in the My Bid column, again highlighted in green if the scheduled bid is higher than the current high bid.

The status bar at the bottom tells you the official eBay time, and relays messages for login and bid amounts. If you have scheduled a bid, when the time comes you can watch the action unfold in the status bar. If everything goes according to plan, you win the auction whether you are in front of the computer or not.

As I mentioned in regards to sniping, BOZ makes no guarantees. If you leave it running for long periods of time, you might want to manually resynchronize its clock with eBay's (via the Actions menu). And if you are counting on BOZ to do your bidding while you are away, it may help to use the "check user" function from the Actions menu before you leave. This function performs a sign-in, which ensures that a scheduled bid will not be slowed down by requiring a sign-in step when time is of the essence.

Short change

BOZ is helpful for those overnight auction end-times, but it is still limited in functionality. For one thing, it can only read in auctions from your watch list; auctions that you have already bid on are not put into your watch list by default, so BOZ does not help you track them by default. And for reasons that are still unclear, BOZ does not support bidding on items listed at the eBay Motors site. I certainly would not want a Firefox extension buying a car for me without my direct supervision, but eBay Motors lists a lot of small vehicle-related items as well.

Another weakness of BOZ is its interface. The extension was developed for use on Windows, and it doesn't quite fit in on Linux. It does not interact correctly with the window manager, omitting minimize and full screen buttons, and it occasionally promotes itself to the top even when you haven't asked it to. In addition, the fonts and list widgets don't follow the correct theme behavior. These issues do not adversely affect its performance, but they do make it look ugly.


As long as we're talking about eBay, there are two other Firefox extensions worth mentioning.

ShortShip adds two columns to eBay's search results page -- one with the total cost of each item including shipping, and one with the total cost including shipping for the Buy It Now price (when there is one) -- and allows you to sort the results based on either of the new columns. You must have the shipping cost column displayed for ShortShip to work. Since you cannot sort on eBay's default shipping cost column, this is a helpful add-on for anyone looking to avoid sellers that gouge on shipping and handling.

eBay Buddy adds a rich set of eBay-specific options to Firefox's context menu. With eBay Buddy installed, you can highlight any text, right-click, and search for it -- on title only, in descriptions, active or completed items, Buy It Now only, completed items only, or just about any other variation. You can also access eBay's categories, discussion boards, help documents, policies, and much more. Given the complexity of navigating eBay, this extension is quite a time saver.

There are, of course, plenty of other eBay-related extensions (not to mention Greasemonkey scripts), but I find these three to be the most helpful. I would like to see BOZ get some attention on the Linux interface front, and support for eBay Motors, but as is it is already a great enhancement. Let's face it -- the frugality that makes a person shop on eBay also drives him to find the best bargain possible. Often that means bidding on auctions with weird ending times. when you use BOZ, only the browser has to lose sleep.

Every week we hope to highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)

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