How to fix Craigslist.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 17 2009 5:48 PM

How To Fix Craigslist

Better feedback, better search, and more openness.

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How should Craigslist fix itself? Wired asked several Web designers to take a stab at it; I like some of their ideas (particularly New York Times designer Khoi Vinh's reimagining), but their fixes were mainly aesthetic, and I'm interested in functional improvements. Here, then, are my three suggestions:

Reduce anonymity. Mistrust pervades Craigslist: Every time you open a listing or get a response to your ad, you wonder whether the correspondent is really who he says he is and is really offering what he says he will. Of course, that problem has long plagued online interactions. But other sites have come up with an easy fix—reviews and reputation scores. Every interaction on eBay results in a rating; in time, the ratings become a proxy for trustworthiness. This polices behavior in all kinds of ways—not only does it help prevent fraud (you won't trade with someone who's been accused of scamming other people), but it also promotes better service from people who aren't outright crooks. Craigslist users face no penalty for flaking out—if a housekeeper you contacted never shows up for his scheduled appointment, nobody's ever going to know. Reputation scores would fix that.

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Better search. Say you're looking to rent a two-bedroom apartment with a parking spot that's within two miles of Palo Alto High School. Or say you want to go out on a date with a woman who's taller than 5 feet 7. Tough luck: Craigslist offers no good way to drill down into search results. Sure, you can try keywords—search for "palo alto high school parking," perhaps adding a zip code—but you'll find yourself getting lots of results that don't work (for instance, listings that say "no parking," "off-street parking," or "expensive, extremely dangerous parking garage located nearby" will match your search). As a result, you waste a lot of time browsing through useless posts.

Solution: Craigslist should create standardized forms for common listings. Anyone posting an apartment would be asked to list specific stats and amenities, and each of these fields would be searchable. The same could go for jobs, cars, computers, and people. In addition, the site should let you sort by these fields. As of now, every search returns data chronologically, which isn't very useful. Why can't we rank apartments from cheapest to most expensive, or computers from slowest to fastest, or people from shortest to tallest?

Open it up to outside developers. Over the years, several programmers have tried to improve Craigslist by presenting its data in more useful ways. Jeff Atwood created a service that let people search for listings across all of Craigslist's cities. Another service, Listpic, let people browse Craigslist by photo rather than text—hugely handy if you're looking for a car, apartment, or date. Craigslist shut them both down, saying each violated the site's terms of service.

Craigslist has long held itself up as the paragon of Internet good behavior, but in this regard, it's far behind the times. Virtually every other Web service opens itself to outsiders—Twitter has an amazing API that allows for third-party search engines and desktop apps, and Facebook lets people add all kinds of extra functions to its social network. Craigslist has argued that letting people use its data will run up its bandwidth bill, but there's an easy solution to that—charge developers a fee for access.

Other companies could then set up useful interfaces for Craigslist and fund their operations either through advertising or subscription fees. And we customers could finally get a better classified listings site. After all, if Craigslist doesn't want to fix itself, why not let others try?

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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