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April 8, 2008 / Toby Dayton

Craigslist: An Aesthetic Abomination And Not The Daily Killer Everyone Thinks

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about Craigslist’s theoretical valuation, I have a few other points to make regarding the classified behemoth.

First of all (and I am fully aware of how old, tired, and overplayed this comment will be), the site remains one of the great aesthetic abominations on the web today. I know this specific critique of Craigslist has been beaten to death, but every time I go to the site, I am re-amazed at how atrocious it is. It’s just awful, and I actually think it is getting worse. And because of the fact that the design is intentionally horrific, it should stand as a massively offensive affront to everyone who even touches, however remotely, the space(s) that Craigslist occupies. It’s just inexcusable.

The site is also a technological travesty. I’ll admit (happily) that I don’t use the site a ton, and this critique will be superficial at best, but how can a company like Craigslist not have a search box on its homepage? How can you start a new blog and not deliver an RSS feed for it? And it wasn’t until recently that the site finally appears to have at least made an attempt to segregate personals from job opportunities, but the job listings are still a mess.

And lastly, in virtually every article I’ve read in the past 5 years about the death of the daily newspaper industry, Craigslist is the almost always the only company credited for having ripped classifieds away from the dailies. It happened again recently in one of the best articles yet on the demise of the dailies (Out Of Print, March 31st, New Yorker). Author Eric Alterman, refuting a Guardian article entitled ‘Not Dead Yet,’ states, “Perhaps not, but trends in circulation and advertising – the rise of the internet, which has made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive; the advent of Craigslist, which is wiping out classified advertising – have created a palpable sense of doom.”

Nearly every article on the topic cites Craigslist in similar fashion and no doubt, the classified site has done much to fundamentally transform the classified business on the web. I’d even say they delivered some crushing body blows to the newspapers. But rather than solely grabbing market share from the dailies, Craigslist has dramatically expanded the classified market by offering free classifieds in most of its cities. The vast majority of listings on Craigslist today were not past advertisers in the dailies. Nor have the dailies ever run ‘erotic services’ ads or personals, at least as far as I know (though that could change any day now given how desperate they are for revenue).

The real damage to the dailies’ classified business has come from the thousands of punches delivered by sites like Monster, Yahoo, Google, and the 50,000 other job boards that have come online (including Craigslist and JobDig and LinkUp). Somewhat less so, but important nevertheless, has been the pain inflicted by the free weekly jobs newspapers (like JobDig, the Employment Guide, JobFinderUSA, and Job News, for example) that are published in metro markets around the country.

Make no mistake, and as I stated unequivocally yesterday, Craigslist is an awesome web site that delivers incredible value to its users. It also stands as one of the true ‘paradigm-shifting’ sites on the web today. And they are clearly one of a handful of 800-pound gorillas stomping around the classified playing field. But Craigslist is still ugly, it is still lacking technologically, and it is not the daily killer that everyone credits the site for being.

[tags]Craigslist, Online Classifieds, Daily Newspapers, Who Killed The Dailies, Free Jobs Weeklies, Free Jobs Newspapers, The Employment Guide, JobDig, LinkUp, JobFiderUSA, Job News, Monster, Yahoo, Google, New Yorker, Out Of Print[/tags]


  1. Sarah / Apr 8 2008 12:44 pm

    But here’s the question: What is the business case for making Craigslist more aesthetically pleasing? Are you saying they’d be able to make more money if they made it look nicer? There are plenty of people who are sick of having to wait ages for fancy sites to load and are fine with text-based listings, and in fact it is this anti-hero approach that has helped Craigslist make $81 million annually. I’m just not sure that making it prettier would actually deliver real business benefits…

  2. Toby Dayton / Apr 8 2008 2:16 pm

    Sarah – I don’t disagree with you at all. The anti-design approach is undoubtedly a critically vital component of Craigslist’s success. Changing it would, without question, undermine their appeal, their positioning in the market, and probably their functionality. Shifting their approach to give higher priority to design and aesthetics would make absolutely no business sense given how Craigslist is positioning themselves today. It does, however, have an impact on who they are, what they deliver, and the flexibility they possess for adapting to a shifting landscape.

  3. David V. / Apr 11 2008 12:19 pm

    I think the design aesthetic of craigslist is less of an abomination than a real commentary on the value structure of its core users – techno-nerds. Craig himself has no design sense and he and his organization are deeply conservative in the sense that they change very slowly. So they will get both RSS and search (I know they’re working on search) but they won’t do it until they are completely sure that it works well, that it doesn’t slow the site down and that people are really ready for it.

    Everyone may use craigslist but at its heart it is a site for people who don’t really care how it looks but just want it to work. It is not my design aesthetic but it really does work. The reality is that they feel a real passion for what they’re doing and they don’t actually consider the ‘business case’ for anything they do. So I just think calling it an abomination is beside the point because it’s not what they’re about, and that’s not because they have different business motives. Also, in terms of commerce only craigslist and eBay can be said to have had a direct impact on the newspaper classifieds business because they are much more enormous than everyone else doing the same things combined.

  4. Toby Dayton / Apr 11 2008 1:52 pm

    David – I agree with almost everything ou say. Clearly, we both agree that Craigslist doesn’t care about the design of their site (although it should be noted that they actually do – they’re passionate about removing all design from it. They are 100% anti-design). It has served them very, very well – for the company and Craigslist’s users.

    The point I was making (and it isn’t beside the point because it is MY point. Not theirs, not yours, not anyone else’s, but mine. And because it’s my point, it can never be besides the point), is that Craigslist’s aesthetic is an absolute abomination. It may very well be beside their point. Actually, I am certain it is, and my guess is that that was what you meant by it being beside the point…. But again, my point is that it’s atrocious. Craigslist would agree. They want their design to be atrocious and they are extremely happy to continue to be a phenomenal success in that regard. But my point is that they are still atrocious.

    And that sucks, because, as the geniuses behind Blu Dot say, good design is good. And I’d like to think that, everything else being equal, good design will always win out over poor design, at least eventually. Apple used to be the great exception to the rule, but they too are now starting to fit the universal law that design wins. Craigslist is now perhaps the leading exception to the rule, though in their case I’d argue that not everything is equal. But ignoring that for the time being, I don’t like the fact that poor design has as much mind-share as Craigslist does. That’s my point.

  5. Job Board News / Apr 15 2008 9:48 am

    yes, i agree, Craig is not killing the dailies — It’s the job boards. I recently blogged about the threat of free classifieds here.

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