Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Building a better Craigslist

A group called RevenueTwoPointZero is pulling together a bunch of new-journalism thinkers this weekend in Washington, DC, in an effort to solve some of the big problems bedeviling us all. One of their four founding charges is to "Create a better Craigslist." So I'm going to offer one completely unsolicited idea for them to chew on.

Let's start with the basic challenge. On the group's Web site, Alan Jacobson offers the following four criteria:

1. Make it easier to use (than Craigslist)
2. Make it free for the general public
3. Serve up context-sensitive, paid ads along with free classified ads
4. Provide a forum for feedback on sellers to keep ‘em honest.

Okay, fair enough. Here goes, Alan.

I'd build a classified-ad aggregator with a nice interface and a better search engine than Craigslist provides. Have your own classifieds there along with Craigslist,, and any other online auction or sales site that seems appropriate. When a user types in "Honda Accord," they'll get the top listings -- if any -- from each of those sales sites for that product. Meanwhile, you can sell display ads (from a local car dealer in this case, for example) to run elsewhere on the results page.

As an industry, we'd have to concede that we've actually lost the classified-ad war. That seems easy enough to most of us, since it's so obviously true. But we'll have to talk gently into the night to executives in our advertising departments to convince them it's finally over.

Even when that's done, we'll have to get our legal eagles involved to make sure we're on solid ground scraping those other sites. But I'm convinced we could find a way to do it. Hell, other places have been aggregating from our sites for a decade or more.

Finally, we have to figure out how to leverage this new model to maximize our gain. Again, I have faith we could handle it. There are ways to provide incentives for classified advertisers to come to us, especially if our user numbers start to put us on more equal footing with the Craigslists of the world.

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