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.

Craig Newmark. Click image to expand.
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark

"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.

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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.

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.

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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