Taking Aim at Craigslist

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Nimble start-ups like Kijiji and Oodle are challenging Craigslist's long-standing reign as the undisputed leader in web classified ads.

If you've never heard of a website called Kijiji, you're not alone. Named for the Swahili word for "village," this new classified service owned by eBay draws just 2.5 million unique visitors in the U.S. each month — less than a tenth of the visitors to Craigslist. Nonetheless, this seemingly inconsequential site with an oddball name is at the heart of a legal scuffle between eBay and Craigslist, in which the companies are suing each other for unfairly undermining their business. A quick glance at the global online listings market reveals why classifieds-king Craigslist is worried. While Kijiji is just a speck in Craigslist's eye in the U.S., worldwide it gets just 26% fewer visitors, according to comScore. In the U.S., Kijiji has become the second most trafficked, general-purpose classified site just one year since it launched.

Kijiji's sudden rise has lit a fire not just under Craigslist — which claims that eBay used its minority interest in Craigslist to steal its business secrets (while eBay maintains that Craigslist unlawfully diluted its shares) — but throughout the $15 billion market for online classifieds. Even as lesser rivals fall by the wayside — Microsoft's Windows Live Expo is shuttering on July 31 — newcomers such as Kijiji and Oodle are gaining real traction. Better designed and marketed, these upstarts are reshaping a long-stagnant sector of the web. Meanwhile, the entire online classified market category has surged some 35% over the past year, as more sellers post ads online and more cash-strapped buyers hunt for bargains there.

Launched in 1995 and currently available in 567 cities and 55 countries, the San Francisco-based Craigslist has had a near monopoly on listings for apartments, cars, relationships and used furniture ever since. The keys to its success have been the (mostly) free listings and a grassroots, community focus that relies heavily on users flagging inappropriate ads. Although it is now a for-profit business with 25 employees (the dot-org suffix is pure nostalgia), the site's founder, Craig Newmark, still refers to it as a "public service" rather than a profit-driven venture.

Yet even as Craigslist continues to thrive — it's expected to rake in some $80 million this year — the site's design and user experience have changed little since it began. "There is a stunning lack of innovation in classifieds," says Craig Donato, founder and CEO of Oodle, which doubled the number of monthly visitors to its site over the past year to nearly two million. The San Mateo, Calif., company with 50 employees and some $19 million in venture capital funding recently made headlines for its deal to host classifieds on walmart.com. Once just a search site that scraped listings from across the Web, Oodle has now partnered with some 200 businesses, including newspapers like the San Diego Tribune and the armed services site Military.com, to power their Web classifieds.

So what's to ogle at Oodle? Unlike Craigslist or Kijiji, this site automatically displays a Google map next to each listing so you can easily pinpoint its location. Oodle also shows you how the price of, say, a scooter you are browsing compares with the average price of scooters listed on the site over the past few months. All listings are free, but sellers can pay a few bucks to get more prominent placement of their ad in search results. Buyers can also get mobile alerts when a listing that meets your criteria pops up on the site.

Whereas Oodle excels in technology, Kijiji is the only general-purpose classified site that is catching up with Craigslist in terms of actual listings. Three years ago, Kijiji didn't even exist. Today it is the top online classified service in France, Germany and Taiwan. It's also neck and neck with Craigslist in Canada. Combined with eBay's other international classified hubs — which include Marktplaats in the Netherlands and Gumtree in the United Kingdom — eBay's portfolio of classifieds actually get more unique visitors around the globe than Craigslist. (As eBay's core auction business has slowed, its classifieds division has posted triple-digit growth over the past year.)

The secret to Kijiji's success, says Jacob Aqraou, general manager of eBay's classified division, is an improved user interface and a more vigilant approach to scaring off scammers and spammers. Whereas Craigslist feels hippie and homegrown, Kijiji features niceties such as images that appear in search results by default and more intuitive menus for refining your search. To drum up interest, eBay also spammed millions of its most active members when Kijiji's U.S. site launched in June 2007.

Craigslist alleges that eBay used its seat on Craigslist's board to glean inside information that it then applied to its own classified site. But to a casual viewer, Kijiji bears more resemblance to its sister site, eBay.com. "It borrows a lot of things from eBay," says general manager Aqraou, who is based in Denmark. For example, Kijiji uses software developed at eBay to identify nudity in photos in order to cut down on inappropriate postings. It's also available in the local language for more of its foreign language sites than Craigslist and even accepts Spanish listings in parts of South Florida and Texas.

Craigslist has announced a few foreign language local sites abroad, but is in no rush to overhaul its overall look and feel. "Craigslist as you see it today is the result of millions of suggestions received from tens of millions of users, and the features you see are those which Craigslist users have asked for," says Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist CEO. Buckmaster says that the company is less concerned with competition and growing marketshare than it is with serving its existing users. "We're simply trying to follow through on feedback received from our users," he adds. As sites like Kijiji and Oodle gain traction, and even unlikely entrants like MySpace and Facebook join the fray with their own listings, more users may notice what they're missing — and demand an upgrade.