February 5, 2006

The Architecture and Ambition of Craigslist

by skrenta at 12:04 PM

Craig has been in the news a lot. The SF Guardian blames Craig for the decline of newspapers. Craig$list.com in the SF Weekly delves more into Craig's day-to-day routine. And New York Metro's piece by Philip Weiss goes out of its way to paint Craig a nerd.

Pet peeve: journalists that pretend to be your buddy for two weeks, then stab you in the back once the story comes out. Call me naive, but I hate it when deceit and betrayal are routinely used by writers as a professional tool.

Give Craig a break. He's a nice guy, and he's built a big useful thing that everybody likes. So people would rather post free classifieds on the Internet than pay for ones on newsprint. Get over it.

But the the real problem with these sour-grapes articles is that they don't shed any real light on why Craigslist has succeeded, where so many other similar efforts have not. Over-analyzing Craig's personal habits makes for catty reading but isn't going to help us understand his takeoff curve in new markets.

To understand how and why something works, study the thing itself, not the maker. Like the Drudge Report, this is a site that looks like it has a simple design, but there's actually a lot going on. The apparently-simplistic layout is like a stealth coating that keeps competitors from paying attention until it's too late. There was another company that used this trick, not so long ago...

I'm not going to dissect every last little piece of this thing, it would be too long and boring and you can study it yourself if you really need to for your day job. But let me point out a few things.

The hardest part of starting a community or usergen site is booting up the activity. Community is a network effect -- posters only come if there are readers, and readers only come if there are posters. So you have to get the chicken and egg stuff going to start up the motor and grow.

UI Selector of Doom

Craigslist is brilliant because his main activity is something that posters are inherently promiscuous with -- personal spamming. In any other context, the bulk of the material on Craigslist would be considered spam. In my email box, on another message forum, heck even on one of google's spam-ridden Blogger sites. The posts are the equivalent of those indiscriminately posted flyers on corkboards at universities.

Buy my mattress..need a ride to Chicago...come see my band. People put these flyers up fully expecting only a handful to see or care about them enough to rip off a tab with the phone number at the bottom. The expectation of response is low but it's cheap to try.

Now Craig's lead-into-gold trick is that he gets his posters to accurately classify their spam. Into 160 categories. Holy Toledo Jacob Nielsen. You can't have a pulldown with 160 things in it. Half of your users wouldn't get a pulldown with 3 things in it right. Ah, but it's not a pull-down. Half of the entire homepage is a giant selector devoted to classifying posts.

Booting up in new places

Booting up new cities should be very hard, maybe taking years like the main SF site took. But there's another set of seed material to help new Craigslist cities get going. The discussion forums. These are global across all the Craigslist cities. If you go to perth.craigslist.com and click on 'transit', you're going to read about SF Muni. But fortunately many of the categories, like 'kink', travel well. So there is plenty of discussion on a brand new Craigslist city to look at even when nobody from the new town has contributed anything yet.

Sex in your City

The personals column competes with Match.com, eHarmony, and other dating sites. But it's got something they don't. A riveting editorial column written by the users.

"Rants and Raves" and "Missed Connections" contain wistful love letters and lurid first person accounts of dating horror. It's great reading and the newspaper profiles of Craig always throw a few of these in to juice up their stories. Even if you're not looking for a date that stuff is great to read. It provides a key draw and lends a personal voice to the Craigslist dating product.

Compare Craigslist's personals/dating section to Match.com. Match.com's editorial product looks like some kind of computer matchfinding machine with a scary mass-media emblem, complete with tm on the logo. Super corporate.

Yahoo Personals doesn't have an editorial component at all, just the web database search form to narrow your search for a mate, like the one you use to find a used car at Cars.com (although, to be fair to our friends at Cars.com, they actually have some great editorial tools around their car search form).

Yahoo has a single link to "Personals" on their homepage. Craigslist devotes 9 links in something like a 160x300 rectangle to personals, using their link selector trick to avoid the grim who-are-you-and-what-do-you-want pulldown, and to visually promote what's inside the dating section, and to showcase their two fun-to-read columns. Craigslist has a killer dating product.

Of course they do this in a bunch of verticals...

Craig comes for you...

As I was putting this post together I asked myself -- who else attacks so many different businesses on a single hompage? Online dating, events, real estate, apartments, forums, used cars, community, jobs. OMG... Yahoo.

Google took on Yahoo by radically cleaning up their homepage. Just a single search box. This was innovative and it worked. Nobody took it seriously at the time either. No ads on the homepage? How are they going to make money?

Craigslist is the UI polar opposite of Google. If you were to make the click-browse vs search-box extreme that is not-Google it would be Craigslist. Just a home page stuffed with a sea of flat tag links. Craigslist is more Yahoo than Yahoo. It focuses on just what's important, without distractions and legacy constraints and compromises.

Decimating newspaper classified advertising will just be footnote along this march. Look at the rest of the verticals that Craigslist so effectively covers.

A cuddly, socially-responsible PR story helped Google's founders avoid suspicion of being merely clever, pragmatic capitalists that wanted to take over a bunch of markets with a monstrously successful business. Craig Newmark is wrapped in the same flag.

Another "I'm just a nice social liberal story" combined with a devastatingly effective UI that nobody gets -- watch out. :-)

Update:

Naval: Craigslist is worth more than eBay

Also: Ben Barren   John Battelle   Andrew Goodman