Craigslist: More squirrelly by the minute

Posted by on Aug 9, 2012 in Craigslist, Marketplace

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In the battle between Craigslist vs., well, seemingly everyone else on the Web, things just seem to get more and more squirrelly.

Yesterday, we would have said “score one for Buckmaster and Newmark” because they managed to shut down both 3Taps, an open application programming interface that was aggregating Craigslist data in a much more usable way, and PadMapper, which was relying on 3Taps to compile the data.

Then today, they did another about-face.

Little more than a week ago, Craigslist added an “exclusivity” clause to its listings. Aside from the absolute ridiculousness of it, and the impossibility of enforcing it, the legality was questionable at best.

It didn’t take long for the Craigslist executives — that is, Jim Buckmaster, the CEO, who runs the place with the help of the lawyers and doesn’t seem to want to answer to (or even communicate with) anyone — to change course. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has received donations from Craigslist and has Craigslist founder Craig Newmark on its advisory board, reported that Craigslist dropped the provision:

“We understand that Craigslist faces real challenges in trying to preserve its character and does not want third parties to simply reuse its content in ways that are out of line with its user community’s expectations and could be harmful to its users. Nevertheless, it was important for Craigslist to remove the provision because claiming an exclusive license to the user’s posts — to the exclusion of everyone, including the original poster — would have harmed both innovation and users’ rights, and would have set a terrible precedent. We met with Craigslist to discuss this recently and are pleased about their prompt action.”

Meantime, the site is still blocking caching by search engines like Google and Bing, which were being used by 3Taps to aggregate listings from Craigslist.

The long-term questions are, “Will this ultimately do Craigslist more harm than good?,” and “Will apps and services continue to pop up to make Craigslist better?”

Short answer to the first: Probably not.

Short answer to the second: Almost definitely yes.

During the weekend, Craigslist stopped search engines from caching its information, shutting down the method 3Taps used to capture Craigslist data. 3Taps, an API / site started by Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Greg Kidd, had been sued by Craigslist (along with PadMapper, a site for organizing and mapping apartment listings), for copyright infringement. But after taking the absurd “exclusivity” step, Craigslist found a way to shut off the faucet on 3 Taps’ access to Craigslist content. That tap has been closed. At least for now.

From 3 Taps:

“Craigslist instructed all general search engines to stop indexing Craigslist postings — effectively blocking 3Taps and other third-party use of that data from these public domain sources. We are sorry that Craigslist has chosen this course of action and are exploring options to restore service but may be down for an extended period of time unless we or Craigslist change practices. As soon as we know more, we will share it  … .”

Doesn’t sound good, does it?

Immediately, the Web comment boards went nuts.

“We can’t help but wonder whether the company has just shot itself in the foot,” wrote Kelly Faircloth of Betabeat. At The Verge, Louis Goddard called it “seeming self-immolation on Craigslist’s part, which will likely see the site’s search traffic drop significantly.”

And there were lots more comments on Web tech boards about how it was done, why it was done, and whether Craigslist was living up to its own stated ideals. (For the technical explanation, see John Koetsier of VentureBeat and Graeme McLaughlin, whom he quotes with the details.)

Eric Goldman, a respected legal analyst who writes on Forbes.com, said Craigslist “is resorting to increasingly desperate measures to control its users’ classified ad listings.”

“Why is Craigslist making these moves?  Because third parties are threatening to interpose themselves between Craigslist and its users–in effect, to disintermediate Craigslist.  If a third party can interpose itself between an intermediary and its users, the new intermediary can draw the users away from the incumbent, thereby undermining or even eliminating the incumbent’s franchise.  Not surprisingly, the incumbent will try anything – even desperate anti-user measures – to negate this threat. …

“This could start a downward spiral for Craigslist.  Either Craigslist lets third-party competitors aggregate its users’ advertising into their databases, or Craigslist reduces the value of its services to advertisers and drives them to competitors.  Thus, even though it might look like Craigslist is making bizarre moves, I think its moves are quite rational.  They’re exactly the kind of moves you’d expect from a panicked company realizing its uncomfortably precarious marketplace position.”

Here’s the reality, however: The Web comment boards can go nuts all they want. And Craigslist can indulge in whatever silliness (or worse — marginal legal activity to shut down APIs) it wants. But the bottom line is that Craigslist works, and most people won’t give a hang about all of the shenanigans.

Want evidence of that? Here are three comments from NYTimes.com that explain it all:

“Boring,” said “Ed” of Alexandria, Va., referring to Craigslist’s design. “But the average Joe is more interested in finding a nice apartment or selling his stereo euipment than in ‘well-designed’ apps that do not reach many people.”

Greg, in Stanford, Calif: “I don’t think Craigslist has too much to worry about. Not too many people are finding these alternatives appealing … . Craigslist offers exactly what most buyers and sellers want: a cheap and fast way to buy or sell stuff.”

And here’s what John Frank of New York wrote, expressing a common viewpoint: “One of the reasons why Craigslist has done so well is not about its design or fancy tools. Its simplicity appeals to the masses. … Do you think the mass population cares that much about the design? The answer is no. It is about building a brand that the mass population can relate to. Craigslist has done what no other company in the space has done or is close to doing.”

So: Will the looney-tunes at Craigslist continue? Most probably. Will Craigslist continue to cause fits for sites trying to improve on it? Yes. Will people keep using it? Yes. And will outsiders try to keep improving on it? Yes.

Craigslist is seeking to hire front-end user-interface and user-experience developers; experienced programmers, and a systems administrator. Here’s hoping they hire them soon, to improve on the Craigslist experience. And maybe they should bring in a common-sense, business-sense senior executive to deal with the real-world issues the company is facing, rather than continuing to play ostrich and sticking their collective heads in the sand.

Written by Peter M. Zollman

Peter M. Zollman brings more than 35 years of media experience to his role as founding principal of the AIM Group / Classified Intelligence Report. He has worked with a wide range of media companies, dot-coms, technology providers and start-ups to develop and expand successful interactive-media services. He is based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., near Orlando.

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