Sunday, November 21, 2021

Whatever Happened to Craigslist?

Craigslist never adapted to the world of Social Media.

I was surfing the net the other day and thought to myself, "Gee, I haven't looked at Craigslist in ages.  Are they still even around?"  And indeed they are, but only a shadow of its former self.  What happened to Craigslist?  Why did it fade away?  The answers are many and are a valuable lesson for anyone wanting to start a website or e-commerce business - or invest in the stocks of one.  The Internet is not forever and sites that were wildly popular only a few years ago are forgotten about today.  Whatever happened to Vine for example? Or Webshots?  Picasa? MySpace? AOL?  Second Life?  - the list goes on and on.  Sites go from "hot" to "not" in about five years, on average, it seems.

Bear in mind that as recently as a decade ago, Craigslist had over 45 million users a day, and was -back then - the largest job posting site and largest real estate site on the Internet. But even then, it had its share of issues, and one reason we have so many other sites available today - and why Craigslist has faded from view - is because of the inherent weirdness of Craigslist.

Today, well, Craigslist has been in steady decline.  This site, for example, illustrates part of the problem - the number of hits to the site is declining almost linearly - a 60% drop in just the last few years.  And the places where Craigslist is most popular?  Montana?  Bend, Oregon?  Craigslist definitely trends rural!

Of course, this doesn't mean Craigslist will "go out of business" anytime soon.  Since it is privately owned and has a very small staff (50 people by some estimates) it need not make a lot of money to survive.  And with 50 employees and (according to some estimates) $1B in income, well, they can stay in business a long, long time, even as a niche player.  That is something that gets lost on the Internet a lot - that you don't have to be "The Next Facebook!™" in order to make money.  So many good sites which were generating ad revenue for their owners, were shut down or reconfigured in futile attempts to wring more cash from them.  The Webshots debacle, for example, is a case in point.

In autopsying Craigslist, I came across several causes of death:

1.  Facebook Marketplace:  Facebook has become the new AOL - the de facto login for people who don't know how to use the Internet.  To a whole generation of folks, Facebook is the Internet, and they get all their news from there, their messages, e-mails, shopping, and so forth.  Even if they visit another website (and that is all Facebook is, a website) they do it through a Facebook link.

Zuckerberg is using the Microsoft model of business.  Back before it became evil, Goolge's mantra was "Don't be Evil!" because their number one competitor, Microsoft, ended up emulating the monopoly practices of its predecessor in the computer world, IBM.  Microsoft put WordPerfect out of business by coming up with the clunky and incredibly complicated Microsoft Word which they handed out for free with new editions of Windows.  They did this to get it established, and it worked.  Within a few short years, WordPerfect, once the default word processing software of the world, was gone.  Word took over.

Microsoft did the same thing with Explorer - making that Internet Web Browser part of Windows and again, free, which basically put Netscape Navigator out of business.  Of course, since then, Explorer has fallen from favor and Google Chrome has taken a big share of the market.  Windows itself may go by the wayside as Android-based products come to the fore.  Microsoft dropped the ball several times - with Zune, with Explorer, with the Windows Phone.  But then again, maybe they don't care anymore, as they make more money with cloud computing and enterprise software.  It is like what IBM is doing - a mystery to most of us, but apparently incredibly profitable.  And by the way, Bezos is doing the same thing - his computer division makes far more money than his mercantile business.  He stands to double his wealth if they split up Amazon.  Poor fellow!

But getting back to Facebook, they are doing the same thing, except instead of swallowing up operating systems or web browsers, they are taking bits and bobs of various internet sites.  The Facebook Marketplace is just Craigslist for Facebook, only without Craigslist.  And more and more of my friends are using that to buy or sell things online.

Granted, there are also a few other Johnny-come-latlies who have tried to enter Craigslist space, with various levels of success.  And of course, there is eBay, which has tried to become more like Amazon as of late and less of a garage sale.  That being said, I have had better luck selling things like cars on eBay than on Craigslist.  In fact, Craigslist seems to attract the weirdos and time-wasters of the world.

2.  Fraud and Cons: I did an extensive posting on how a con can work on Craigslist.  Put up some photos of a desirable item at a low, low price, and the wackos and weirdos who peruse Craigslist will send you all their money.  Craigslist doesn't do much to curb this fraud.  They rely on people like you and me "flagging" postings as improper, and if enough people flag something, it *might* get removed (paid commercial postings rarely get removed, even if they violate the ToS by text-spamming).

The problem with the flagging system is that legitimate postings can be flagged as improper, particularly by cranks and misanthropes.  So people have legit listings canned while fraud goes on rampant.  Eventually, people get tired of this and leave.

Craigslist is facing the same problem that Facebook has - how do you moderate millions of postings for content, without hiring thousands of people to read and review each posting?  And moderation can backfire on you, as a moderator will kill a posting that is legit and people will cry "censorship" or politcal correctness or cancel culture or whatever.

One way to fix the system is to charge money.  The guy putting up 500 fraudulent advertisements for Casita travel trailers isn't going to pay even a dollar per ad, as it would bankrupt him.  But paid advertising goes against the whole concept of Craigslist, and traditionally, paid ads are far less popular than free ones.

For example, Autotrader has paid ads - I know of few people who have had luck buying or selling a car on there.  People put up "dreamer" prices on cars and the bulk of ads are from used car dealers.  Not a lot of bargains there, if any.

Facebook Marketplace, on the other hand, has ads from "real people" who are not supposed to be using fake accounts.  But given how Facebook works, you can at least click on the seller and see whether their account is ten minutes old or whether they have any sort of background.  Again, Facebook comes out ahead, Craigslist falls further behind.

3.  Tinder, Grindr, and other hookup sites:  Craigslist no longer takes "lonely hearts" ads - the M4M, M4F, F4M, F4F, and so on and so forth.  There was a lot of trolling going on there to be sure. Some folks put up fake ads and tried to get people to send naked pix, either for their own gratification or for blackmail purposes. Others were involved in human trafficking or trying to solicit minors.  It was a huge part of the site at one time, but Craigslist decided the liability wasn't worth it.  All it takes is one person to be victimized though Craigslist and they would end up getting sued.

Of course, this wasn't limited to sex ads.  Every month, the news media would report a "Craigslist Murder!" where someone met someone in shady part of town to buy or sell a laptop, a cell phone, or a car or something.  One party shows up with the item for sale or the money to buy it, and the other party shows up with a gun.  The media would call this a "Craigslist Murder!" with the exclamation point, but never called a similar crime a "Classified Ad Murder!" if someone was victimized through the classified ads in the newspaper.

The message the media was sending was that Craigslist was somehow dangerous and evil - not like the good old fashioned classified ads in the newspaper that the media outlet just happened to own.  Of course, that sort of nonsense has faded away as of late.  I guess they call them Facebook Murders now or something.

4.  Dealer and Manufacturer sites:  When searching for our cars online, we didn't spend much time, if any, on Craigslist.  In our truck search, the only one really advertising on Craigslist was a rural dealer who had trucks all with over 100,000 miles on them.  There were a few local sellers, often with beat-up high-mileage vehicles that were not in good shape.

We found that for new cars, you can search dealer inventory usually from the manufacturer's site, and for new and used cars, from the dealer sites.  Such sites have improved dramatically, usually with a plethora of photos, CarFax information, and even 360-degree views.   They also usually had prices, too, none of this "call for price" nonsense you see a lot on Craigslist, despite their rules about pricing things.

Frankly, manufacturer's websites should give Amazon pause as well.  We bought new sneakers the other day, and I opened up several sites online - eBay, the Merrell site, and Amazon - as well as a google search.  The prices were all about the same across the board, except I found one pair for Mr. See at a 15% discount on eBay.  The Merrell site offered a 10% discount if I signed up for their newsletter.  Amazon only offered full price.  After I bought one pair, Merrell offered 25% off on my next purchase (!!) which severely undercut Amazon's prices.

Note that I did not look to Craigslist for sneakers - it isn't an e-commerce site, but some sort of funky, slightly shady, garage sale.  And no, I am not interested in used sneakers - they do sell them on eBay!  Yuk.

I found the same to be true on the Bissell and the Black and Decker sites - prices as good as, if not better than Amazon or eBay, items in stock more often, and fast, free shipping.  It is a big shift from not-too-long-ago when manufacturers were obsessed with not undercutting their retail partners in price, and as a result offered clunky, hard-to-use websites with "meh!" prices.  Times have changed and I suspect we will see more direct manufacturer-to-consumer sales in the future - but that is a subject for another posting.

5.  Clunky Interface: Craigslist is sort of stuck in the 1990's in terms of website design.  I don't mind that - it loads pretty quickly and doesn't have a lot of unnecessary graphics, animation, or stupid auto-play videos.

But if you want to buy something, it gets tricky - you have to "contact" the seller, which is through an anonymous e-mailing system, I guess because they are worried about security or something.  I am not sure how this anonymous system helps anyone, other than crooks and con-men.  I mean, eventually, you have to deal with someone face-to-face and know their name and location.  Why make this a State Secret?

It really needs some work - and updating to at least 21st Century standards.

6. Weird Secrecy: Craigslist the company, has been critiqued due to its apparent secrecy as to how it operates, how it makes money, and who is really in charge.   The company is wholly owned by its founder, Craig Newmark, and as a result, we have no real idea of how much money they are making, even as some report it as $1 Billion a year.  The problem with a company like this, is that the iconic founder usually has to be booted out, over time, to make room for new ideas, new blood, and more professional operation.

In any start-up, the founder usually has an idea of "how things should be done" and resists any attempts at change.  As a result, founders are usually forced out, once the company goes public.  Even Steve Jobs was fired from Apple.  Others merely step back, much as Bezos is doing.

Craig clings to his clunky old list because he invented it and sees no reason to change it.  As a result, it never will change, even as the Internet changes around him. In 2010, Craigslist may have been the "go to" site for a lot of things, but since then, other sites have cleanly eclipsed it.

Craigslist is weird and will likely stay that way, until either Craig dies, sells the company, or Craigslist goes out of business.  Given the limited overhead involved, the last possibility isn't likely.

So what is the future for Craigslist? Like I said, if they sell the site or when Craig dies, unless he has a successor lined up, it may all go away. Someone will sell the site to investors, who will want a return on their investment, likely fire all the people working there, hire overseas folks to manage it, and then SPAM the crap out of it until they chase all the users away. It's the Silicon Valley Playbook for dying websites!

But until then, Craigslist will muddle on, remaining popular in rural Montana and other areas, where Cletus and Bubba think their 289,000 mile pickup truck is worth $9,000.  If nothing else, Craigslist has its entertainment value as a comedy site!