"How should we fix Craigslist?" sounds like a dumb question. The Web's most popular classified-ad site is fantastically good at putting people together. It's the quickest, easiest way to find a roommate, someone to walk your dog, someone to buy your junk, or someone to do, ahem, other stuff with your junk. With its old-school design and drop-dead-simple interface, anyone can understand Craigslist, which means that everyone uses Craigslist. In the business of classifieds, it faces virtually no meaningful competition.
And then there are its appealing business mores. Craigslist is pretty much free—the site charges for job listings in big cities and for apartment listings in New York, but other than that you can post as often as you want, in as many categories as you want, for nothing. It is also completely free of banner advertising, a rare, blessed surprise on the Web these days, and a central element of its hippie image. Though Craigslist is a thriving business—estimates put its 2009 revenues at $100 million—it feels more like a love-in: He could be worth billions, but Craig Newmark, the eponymous founder, has sacrificed it all in order to give the world a great way to get together.
Which is all fantastic. And yet there's no arguing that Craigslist is dysfunctional. Many of its categories are overrun with spam or obviously fake listings. It is an enabler of fraud and other human misdeeds—we can discount the stupidly sensational tabloid stories blaming Craigslist for causing murders, but its anonymity-friendly interface does make it easy for idiots to post scurrilous things, sometimes to devastating effect. Craigslist is also a mess to navigate: The site might have a simple interface, but it's cumbersome to search—you can find stuff by keywords, but it gives you no other way to narrow down listings. You can't sort a section in any way other than chronologically, a handicap that sends every new ad hurtling down the page—and prompts people to post the same ad many, many times. Newmark likes to say that Craigslist operates under a "culture of trust." But the site's biggest failing is its refusal to offer any ways to bolster trust. All kinds of Web ventures—e-commerce sites, dating sites, social-networking sites, and review sites like Yelp—have found ways to reduce the risks of anonymous encounters between strangers online. Craigslist has failed to learn these lessons; it has remained puzzlingly, annoyingly static.
Two recent developments prompted me to think about ways to fix Craigslist. The first was Gary Wolf's excellent cover story in this month's Wired, which takes Newmark and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster to task for their oddball management style. In essence, it's management by neglect. They seem to be opposed to making any changes to the site on the grounds that people love it the way it is—which is true, but people have loved a lot of things that were later improved, including, most pertinently, the Yellow Pages and newspaper classifieds. Craigslist isn't broken, but that's no reason not to fix it.
That brings me to Redbeacon, a startup that launched at this week's TechCrunch50 conference, which offers a promising vision for improving the sort of encounters we now look for on Craigslist. Redbeacon is a cross between Craigslist and the restaurant-reservation site OpenTable; it acts as an intermediary between customers and local service providers—dog walkers, bakers, plumbers, gardeners, etc. If you're looking for a gardener, go to Redbeacon and type in your needs—what kind of garden you have, how often you'd like the gardener to stop by, what specific expertise you'd like him to possess, and so on.
Your request goes to local gardeners who've registered with Redbeacon; they consider your needs and send back quotes for their services. The gardeners aren't anonymous—you see their names and reviews from other Redbeacon and Yelp users. Connecting with the service providers is also a snap: Just click on the bid you like and press "accept." There's no phone tag or endless e-mail chains, and because the businesses pay Redbeacon a fee when someone accepts an offer, you can be reasonably sure they're not going to flake out—which in my experience is a huge problem on Craigslist. (See Redbeacon's presentation video here.)
Redbeacon won TechCrunch's top prize—$50,000 in seed money—but, as many of the conference's attendees pointed out, it faces a chicken-and-egg problem. Customers will use the site only if many businesses sign up, but businesses won't sign up without the expectation of getting a lot of customers. As Wolf points out, that has long been Craigslist's secret to success—it's achieved critical mass and is now nearly impossible to topple. While I'm excited about Redbeacon, my main hope is that it prompts innovation in local-service sites and that it pushes Craigslist to change its ways.