Browse eBay with Style and Speed

Editor’s note: Developers in verticals such as e-commerce have started embracing AMP to bring a faster experience to their users, and we’re excited to highlight their efforts.

The following was originally posted on the eBay Tech Blog by Senthil Padmanabhan, Principal Engineer & Frontend Lead at eBay. Below you can read about how Senthil’s team started working on AMP and learn about their upcoming plans to get involved with the AMP Project.

* * *

One of the top initiatives for eBay this year is to provide a compelling browse experience to our users. In a recent interview, Devin Wenig has given a good overview of why this matters to eBay. The idea is to leverage structured data and machine learning to allow users to shop across a whole spectrum of value, where some users might desire great savings, while others may want to focus on, say, best selling products.

When we started to design the experience, our first area of focus was mobile web. Similar to many other organizations, mobile web has been our highest growing sector. We wanted to launch the new browse experience on mobile web first, followed by desktop and native.

The core design principles of the new mobile web browse experience were to keep it simple, accessible, and fast, really fast. On the front-end side of things, we made a couple of choices to achieve this.

  • Lean and accessible — From the beginning we wanted the page to be as lean as possible. This meant keeping the HTML, CSS, and JS to a minimum. To achieve this goal, we followed a modular architecture and started building atomic components. Basically a page is a bunch of modules, and a module is built from other sub-modules, and so on. This practice enabled maximum code reuse, which in turn reduced the size of resources (CSS and JS) drastically. In addition, our style library enforced accessibility through CSS — by using ARIA attributes to define styles rather than just class names. This forces developers to write a11y-friendly markup from the beginning, instead of it being an afterthought. You can read more about it here.
  • Code with the platform — The web platform has evolved into a more developer friendly stack, and we wanted to leverage this aspect — code with the platform vs. coding against it. What this meant was that we could reduce the dependency on big libraries and frameworks and start using the native APIs to achieve the same. For instance, we tried to avoid jQuery for DOM manipulations and instead use the native DOM APIs. Similarly, we could use the fetch polyfill instead of $.ajax etc. The end result was a faster loading page that was also very responsive to user interactions. BTW, jQuery is still loaded in the page, because some of eBay platform specific code is dependent on it, and we are working towards removing the dependency altogether.

But our efforts did not stop there. The speed aspect was very critical for us, and we wanted to do more for speed. That is when we ran into AMP.

Experimenting with AMP

The AMP project was announced around the same time we started the initial brainstorming for browse. It seemed to resonate a lot with our own thinking on how we wanted to render the new experience. Although AMP was more tuned towards publisher-based content, it was still an open source project built using the open web. Also, a portion of the traffic to the new browse experience is going to be from search engines, which made it more promising to look into AMP. So we quickly pinged the AMP folks at Google and discussed the idea of building an AMP version for the browse experience, in addition to the normal mobile web pages. They were very supportive of it. This positive reaction encouraged us to start looking into AMP technology for the eCommerce world and in parallel develop an AMP version of browse.

Today we are proud to announce that the AMP version of the new browse experience is live, and about 8 million AMP-based browse nodes are available in production. Check out some of the popular queries in a mobile browser — Camera Drones and Sony PlayStation, for example. Basically adding amp/ to the path of any browse URL will render an AMP version (for example, non-AMP, AMP). We have not linked all of them from our regular (non-AMP) pages yet. This step is waiting on few pending tasks to be completed. For now, we have enabled this new browse experience only in mobile web. In the next couple of weeks, the desktop web experience will also be launched.

So how was the experience in implementing AMP for the eCommerce world? We have highlighted some of our learnings below.

What worked well?

  • Best practices — One of the good things about AMP is that at the end of the day it is a bunch of best practices for building mobile web pages. We were already following some of them, but adoption was scattered across various teams, each having its own preference. This initiative helped us consolidate the list and incorporate these best practices as a part of our regular development life cycle itself. This made our approach towards AMP more organic, rather than a forced function. The other good side effect of this is even our non-AMP pages become faster.
  • Less forking in code — This follows the previous point. Since we started following some of the AMP best practices for building regular pages, we were able to reuse most of the UI components between our non-AMP and AMP browse page. This resulted in less forking in code, which otherwise would have become a maintenance nightmare. Having said that, there is still some forking when it comes to JavaScript-based components, and we are still figuring out the best solution.
  • AMP Component list — Although the AMP project’s initial focus was more towards publisher-based content and news feeds, the AMP component list was still sufficient to build a basic product for viewing eCommerce pages. Users will not be able to do actions on items (such as “Add To Cart”), but they still get a solid browsing experience. The good news is that the list is getting better and growing day by day. Components like sidebarcarousel, and lightbox are critical in providing a compelling eCommerce experience.
  • Internal AMP platform — We have been thinking about leveraging the AMP ecosystem for our own search, similar to how Google handles AMP results. This plan is in very early stages of discussion, but the possibility of our search using AMP technology is very interesting.

The complex parts

  • Infrastructure components — To launch an eBay page to production, a lot of infrastructure components automatically come into play. These are things like Global header/footer, site speed beacon kit, experimentation library, and the analytics module. All of them have some amount of JavaScript, which immediately disqualifies them from being used in the AMP version. This adds complexity in development. We had to fork few infrastructure components to support the AMP guidelines. They had to go through a strict regression cycle before being published, which added delays. Also, our default front-end server pipeline had to be conditionally tweaked to exclude or swap certain modules. It was a good learning curve, and over time we have also replaced our early quick hacks with more robust and sustainable solutions.
  • Tracking — AMP provides user activity tracking through its amp-analytics component.amp-analytics can be configured in various ways, but it still was not sufficient for the granular tracking needs that eBay has. We also do stuff like session stitching, which needs cookie access. Creating an amp-analytics configuration to suit our needs was slowly becoming unmanageable. We need some enhancements in the component, which we are hoping to develop and commit to the project soon.

What’s next?

We are excited to partner with Google and everyone else participating on the AMP Project to close the gap in launching a full-fledged eCommerce experience in AMP. We have created a combined working group to tackle the gap, and we will be looking into these items and more.

  • Smart buttons — These enable us to do actions like “Add To Cart” and “Buy It Now” with authentication support.
  • Input elements — User interactive elements are critical to eCommerce experiences, be they simple search text boxes or checkboxes.
  • Advanced tracking — As mentioned earlier, we need more granular tracking for eBay, and so we have to figure out a way to achieve it.
  • A/B Testing — This will enable experimentation on AMP.

With items like these in place, AMP for eCommerce will soon start surfacing.

We will also be looking into creating a seamless transition from the AMP view to a regular page view, similar to what the Washington Post did using Service Workers. This will enable users to have a complete and delightful eBay experience without switching contexts.

We are also asked the question of if there is more focus towards web over native. The answer is NO. At eBay, we strongly believe that web and native do not compete each other. They indeed complement each other, and the combined ecosystem works very well for us. We will soon be launching these browse experiences in our native platforms.

We are on our path to making eBay the world’s first place to shop and this is a step towards it. Thanks to my colleague Suresh Ayyasamy, who partnered in implementing the AMP version of browse nodes and successfully rolling it to production.


Browse eBay with Style and Speed

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