The Evolving World of Online Classifieds

Craig's List, the community-oriented classifieds site, remains one of the most popular places on the Web to search for an apartment, a bicycle, or a kitchen table. Experts estimate there are tens of thousands of sites on the Web for job seekers, house hunters, and every other kind of seeker.

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CraigsList, the classifieds site, remains one of the most popular places on the Web to search for apartments, a used bicycle or a kitchen table. But as the classifieds move out of local newspapers, experts estimate there are tens of thousands of Web sites for job-seekers, house-hunters or every other kind of searcher. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at the evolving world of online classifieds.

LAURA SYDELL: For almost a century, the search for a job usually began with this sound.

(Soundbite of newspaper crinkling)

SYDELL: The crinkle of opening a newspaper to look at columns of alphabetically listed jobs from administrative assistant to X-ray technician. But now it's almost as likely to begin with this sound.

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

SYDELL: Fingers tapping away on a keyboard, putting information into one of the many classified Web sites for jobs.

Mr. PETER ZOLLMAN (Founder, Classified Intelligence): Monster.com, careerbuilder.com and hotjobs.com are the big job sites.

SYDELL: Peter Zollman is the founder of Classified Intelligence, a consulting firm. He says these three main job sites let would-be employees post resumes and employers advertise jobs. Each has thousands of listings all over the country and the world. But many people may find these sites a bit too broad, says Zollman. For them, there are thousands of niche sites.

Mr. ZOLLMAN: If you're a radiology technician, you might want to go to a site like AuntMinnie.com, and that's a site that's very focused on radiology.

SYDELL: The world of classifieds is getting increasingly more fragmented. There are specialized sites for all kinds of interests, says Ken Doctor, an analyst for Outsell, a market research company.

Mr. KEN DOCTOR (Analyst, Outsell): There are sites like StubHub that connect buyers and sellers of baseball tickets or concert tickets. There are sites that connect you up if you want to buy a certain kind of vintage car. There are sites for apartments in certain parts of the city.

SYDELL: According to figures from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the most popular online classified site remains CraigsList, followed by Trader Publishing Company, cars.com and apartments.com. The big Internet companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and eBay are also fighting to get a piece of the classified pie.

Regular newspapers reportedly get about $18-20 billion in income annually from classifieds, but that is increasingly being siphoned off to the online world. According to Pew, 32 million American adults used online classifieds in 2005.

As more sites come online, there are others trying to make it easier to sort through it all.

Mr. CRAIG DONATO (Founder, oodle.com) I was using classifieds to buy a bunch of things, and I was surprised at how horrible the experience was.

SYDELL: Craig Donato wanted to develop a site that sifted through all the others, so two years ago, he started oodle.com.

Mr. DONATO: So we've created a site that enables you to see all the listings that are available for your market. So for example, if you wanted to look for a Chihuahua 50 miles from your house that's brown or female, we can show it to you. And we have things like alerts, so that if you're looking for something, if you tell us, we'll e-mail you the minute it's available.

SYDELL: But Donato has run up against some big problems. CraigsList and several other sites won't let Oodle cull their listings. Still, Oodle does pull listings from some 75,000 sites. Oodle may be on to something. Analyst Ken Doctor thinks that the online classified industry is just beginning to sort itself out, and it's not really clear who will turn out to be the market leaders.

Mr. DOCTOR: What is it somebody wants? They want to hire somebody. They want the right car at the right price. They want to find the right place to live. If you can satisfy people's needs more easily, more cheaply and more effectively, they'll move over to a new technology like that.

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

SYDELL: Doctor isn't writing off newspaper companies yet. They may be able to make their online classified sites more popular and profitable through deals like the ones they've recently made with Yahoo. Yahoo will post newspaper classifieds to its site and share its advertising technology. But one thing is certain. The days of getting ink-smudged hands while poring through the classifieds will soon be over.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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Reading Between the Lines: Classified Ads 101

Man reading classified ads

Throw away the newspaper and pick up the computer mouse if you're trying to reach urban dwelling bikers. Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Corbis

Newspaper classified ads — so familiar, so conventional. Online classified ads — they're the new frontier. But which is more effective? We asked newspaper and e-commerce experts for guidance.

Should I place my ad online or in print?

Online is typically best for reaching youth, urban dwellers, bike riders. If you're trying to reach anyone younger than 30, go online, says Michael Schrage, who has written about advertising issues for Wired. Newspapers, however, still do a fine job with ads aimed at the older generation.

For specialty items, a newspaper might offer a broader market.

"Say you live in a marine area and you're trying to sell a boat," says Emily Riley, an e-commerce analyst at JupiterResearch. The local rag will most likely get a bigger audience for your ad. A local paper is also perfectly appropriate for a yard sale.

On the other hand, if you're trying to sell something you can ship, or if you live in a rural area, an online ad will get more eyeballs.

Do the same rules apply for selling or buying a car?

A lot of people research cars online. It's a great way to check prices for new and used vehicles (see best sites, below). But only 1 in 10 will shop for cars on the Internet. So print makes sense — although it "depends on where you live," says Riley. "In Silicon Valley, obviously more people are going to list online."

What about real estate?

Again, age is the key. The number of people viewing real-estate classified ads online is relatively small: about 17 percent of the U.S. population. But that number ticks up to 22 percent among home-buyers and apartment renters younger than 24. (And as they age, they'll keep their online real-estate habit.)

Of course, there's nothing wrong with trying both options. Riley recommends listing your house in print but also placing ads on a site like craigslist.com, which is especially popular among young people looking for short-term rentals. "If you're subletting or renting," she says, "craigslist.com is the place to go." (See more on craigslist.com at bottom)

What if I'm trying to find or post a job?

The kind of job makes a difference. If you're a CPA or lawyer, for example, and are interested in working in a small, private practice, you'll find more options in the newspaper. Hourly positions are also more likely to be posted in the newspaper. But if you work for the government or in the tech industry, chances are you'll do better online.

"Recent college grads are looking online," says Riley. "Almost 30 percent of people under 35 job hunt online."

TOOLS YOU CAN USE:

Best Car Websites:

Kelley Blue Book: Search by sticker price and invoice price for all used and new cars.

Edmonds.com Provides info on specific models, guides to buying used and new vehicles and prices for used and new cars. There are also forums where you can ask questions to other users about purchasing or trading in your vehicle.

Craigslist.com: The biggest, free classified site on the Internet, craigslist.com is a must-bookmarksite for anyone looking to buy or sell — well, anything. The site is visited daily by most online users younger than 35, is easily searchable, and best of all — totally free (it makes money by charging for job ads in certain cities.) The site is separated by cities, so you can post an ad and know you'll reach the locals. There's also no harm in a twofer: craigslist as well as print (see Primer at bottom)

Best Home-Buying Websites:

Riley recommends craiglist.com for all apartment rentals and sublets. Many local real-estate brokers list houses online, as do large companies like Remax, realtor.com and Century21.

Best Job-Hunting Websites:

Jobster.com — A new, searchable job-hunting Web site that allows job seekers to tag themselves with keywords for companies to search. The site also allows potential employees to post resumes and answer questions like "What would a movie about your life be called?"

Monster.com – The mother of all job Web sites allows you to post your resume and search more than 100,000 job postings. It's heavy on retail, marketing and tech jobs.

Craigslist.com – Though almost everything on craigslist.com is free, posting a job in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C., is not. What this means: Employers in these cities posting on craigslist.com want employees and are willing to pay a premium to find good ones. Be forewarned: Craigslist jobs is hit-or-miss depending on where you live and which industry you work in (tech is good; journalism — not so much.)

Craigslist: A Primer

Craiglist.com is not flashy. It looks like a Web site from 1995. That's when the site began as a community bulletin board for the San Francisco Bay area. It was (and is) free. And it has always been anonymous (which means any ad you post does not contain your e-mail address — instead, replies are forwarded to you through an anonymous address.)

Founder Craig Newmark was onto something. Craiglist is now in every major city in the United States, as well as many countries around the globe. More than 15 million people use craigslist each month, posting more than 12 million new ads. Knowing how to tap into this audience is invaluable for selling or buying stuff.

"Craigslist has an improvisational quality," Michael Schrage notes. "What you write is not set in stone. And there's a difference between simply knowing how to post and knowing how to post well."

A tip: Craigslist is searchable, which means you want to spell out exactly what you are listing. People use keywords to search, so you'll want to use specifics when describing your goods.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is taking what they think a print ad is and posting it to craigslist.com," says Schrage. "The whole notion of using unusual words or condensed headlines doesn't work."

If you're not familiar with craigslist.com, Schrage recommends taking 15 to 20 minutes to familiarize yourself with the site.

"You can see which ads you personally find interesting and then mimic them," he says. "Craigslist isn't a list. It has a personality. It has style. It has an ethos, unlike print."

For example, listing an apartment as a "luxury palace" is creative, but not necessarily a phrase that users will search for. Describe exactly what amenities your place has: "a closet with one small window and occasional heating" says a lot more than "small fixer-upper."

A helpful tip: Read the posting guidelines and check the FAQ before you post. Because people can respond to your ad anonymously, some responses may be offensive or inappropriate. Do not respond to any messages that ask for any personal information. If you have any doubts about any e-mails you receive, delete them. And if you're in the market for a "small fixer-upper" in Washington D.C., please let me know.

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