How and Why Craigslist is Still Relevant

It’s been over 20 years and nothing much has changed: the links are a bright, clickable blue, there are no modern, techy graphics, and the layout remains familiarly the same.  Whether genius or madness, Craigslist still holds a place in the everyday jargon of millions of people looking to pawn off a used sofa or buy their first home.  It would seem impossible, however, that this kind of success could last; mobile apps like OfferUp, a company that touts itself as “the largest mobile marketplace in the U.S,” are gunning to claim the title of the best (and most successful) person-to-person marketplace.

Place them side by side, and the visual impact is striking; 1995 and 2016 seem to pull in polar opposite directions, one bland yet familiar and one tantalizingly modern and fresh.  While the interface of a website or mobile app is extremely important to its users, there are obviously a variety of other factors that come into play when measuring success.  Exploring why and how Craigslist can still claim its own unique sector of the internet will illustrate the longevity of simple, static websites and how they continue to produce revenue and popularity despite competitors and start-ups looking to displace them.

The past 10 years have seen a surge of new companies hitting the vertical marketplace.  Businesses in this type of market target a specific group of customers with a more particular need or product.  For example, services like Uber and AirBnB cater to a fairly narrow audience (a twenty-something looking for  a ride downtown or a family searching for a unique vacation home), while a company like eBay extends their market to a vastly broader range of clientele.  This latter type of market is classified as horizontal, in which a more comprehensive range of categories are offered that appeal to a wide variety of people.  Craigslist fits comfortably in this marketplace, one of the main reasons that they have long maintained their popularity and success.   They have create a community where people can simultaneously buy and sell merchandise while soliciting or responding to job postings and services in nearly every category imaginable.

Is this market strategy an advantage or a disadvantage?  Take the search engine Google, for example, a household name with its stamp on everything from a simple website logo to self-driving cars.  Google hosts an average of 40,000 searches every second worldwide, and can be used to search literally anything that can be thought of in any category possible.  A clear horizontal market can thus be seen in action; any doubts as to their success can be easily removed with query of the website’s stats, facts and figures using its own search engine.  Contrasting this extensive reach with a vertical search engine will show the alternate side of the coin; we’ll take Yummly, a semantic search tool that allows users to find recipes based on their criteria, including food allergies or specific diets.  While powerful and clearly successful, Yummly will only ever be a search engine for food; it wouldn’t make sense to expand to any dissimilar market.  While the facts don’t downplay the achievements of either of these businesses, they illustrate the expansive power of the horizontal market.  Craigslist could add categories without batting an eyelash, and users wouldn’t either; vertical markets, however, must stick to their relative confines, which can be limiting.

Aside from the market analytics, Craigslist retains relevance in an unconventional way.  By modern digital standards, Craigslist lacks visually in comparison to most – if not all – web-based businesses.  One of OfferUp’s most celebrated features is its user-friendly interface with simple, modern graphics and image-driven interface. Synonymous with apps like Instagram and Snapchat in its endless scrolling of photographs, OfferUp and modern companies like it appeal to the current generation of tech users and their affinity for visuals.  Why, then, do Craigslist users continue to make use of a site that lacks a contemporary edge?  It may be that humans are not very fond of change.  There is something comforting about things that always look the same, and the longer a website doesn’t revise its appearance, the longer users may expect that it never will.  This familiarity breeds loyalty, at least in the case of Craigslist.  As a no-frills,  text-based website, Craigslist also excels at getting straight to the point: you can easily narrow down what you are searching for based off of dozens of categories, without having to scroll through endless images of items you aren’t interested it.  Visitors to the site may feel relieved when not instantly bombarded with smart fonts and hip graphics.  Its utilitarian feel lets the user get down to business, which is exactly the site’s purpose.

The question arises: is it viable?  Can Craigslist continue to stand up to the onslaught of competition in the way that the site itself largely replaced newspaper classified ads?  The adage of “time will tell” as always applies, but it’s worth comparing the current stats.  According to Alexa, an analytics company, Craigslist is currently ranked 12 in popularity in the United States and 71 globally, an impressive feat for such a visually lacking website.  How does the competition stack up, and are they threatening to overtake that rank?  OfferUp is often cited as Craigslist’s main competitor, but the facts speak for themselves: a popularity rank of 1,092,435 in the United States and 3,678,129 globally show the clear gap that it may take OfferUp many years to bridge, if at all.

The future may bring challenges to their longstanding success, but the nature of Craigslist provides a loophole against commonplace marketing strategies that similar companies have employed.  There is no need to rebrand the site as there is virtually no existing branding; graphics and layouts don’t need to be changed or enhanced as the site is largely text based, and images are provided by the users and not the company.  They continue to dominate their niche in peer-to-peer commerce with a clever mix of simplicity and relevance. It appears that,  for the time being, what isn’t broken doesn’t need to be fixed.