Craigslist is great the way it is

Gary Wolf's feature on the idiosyncrasies of craigslist, its founder Craig Newmark, and its CEO Jim Buckmaster perfectly captures the thing that makes the site so wonderful: the quirky, zen character of its executives who love the heroically ugly, creaking beast and refuse to change it.
But if you really want to see a mess, go visit the nation's greatest apartment-hunting site, the first likely choice of anybody searching for a rental or a roommate. On this site, contrary to every principle of usability and common sense, you can't easily browse pictures of the apartments for rent. Customer support? Visit the help desk if you enjoy being insulted. How much market share does this housing site have? In many cities, a huge percentage. It isn't worth trying to compare its traffic to competitors', because at this scale there are no competitors.

Each of these sites, of course, is merely one of the many sections of craigslist, which dominates the market in facilitating face-to-face transactions, whether people are connecting to buy and sell, give something away, rent an apartment, or have some sex. With more than 47 million unique users every month in the US alone--nearly a fifth of the nation's adult population--it is the most important community site going and yet the most underdeveloped. Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.

Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess


  1. Craigslist works. Think a minute about newspaper classified ads. They aren’t that much different from Craigslist: a big list of text, no indexes, no search function, no organization beyond broad categories. You had to pretty much read an entire category one ad at a time to find what you were looking for. And it worked, and worked well, for decades. Once you got a feel for it, you could scan it fairly quickly and concentrate on the promising ads. One thing I notice about Craigslist: it’s incredibly fast to load listings. On and the like, for instance, it can take 15-30 seconds to load in one listing to look at. And then it takes another 15-30 seconds to get back to the listing page before you can move on to the next listing. A listing on Craigslist loads in a second or two, and you pop back to the listing almost instantly. I can scan 5-6 Craigslist apartment listings in the time it takes to look at one listing off And you know what? That speed more than makes up for the lack of search features. I may not find every listing I might be interested in, but I’ll find enough and I’ll probably find one that’s good enough to bite on, and I’ll find it in half the time the fancier sites would take me.

    I think the difference is in worldview. For sites like Monster and, as someone looking for a job or an apartment I’m their product, to be sold to their advertisers and used to extract the maximum number of dollars from their clients. For Craigslist, I’m a customer who’s come looking for something. If Craigslist is serving me poorly, at least it’s serving me.

  2. I love craigslist.
    It proves that content is so much more important than the AJAX and Flash rubbish heap the web is becoming.

  3. As others have said, the advantage of Craigslist is that it just works, and works amazingly well.

    It used to take us weeks to get calls for rentals when tenants left, especially in this economy. Most other sites on the web want money for listings. With Craigslist, we had multiple calls on a house within a day after we put it up, and had it rented at our asking price within two weeks. Conversely, I found my new apartment in one of the most well-known and exclusive buildings in the city through Craigslist, simply by searching for the name, when no other site had listings for it; I didn’t really expect any result, and yet there it was.

  4. Not sure I’d agree in heaping praise on Craigslist – it’s full of scams. Yes, if you have half a brain you can avoid them, but it leaves me with a nasty feeling whenever I try to buy or sell something there.

    (Recent example: in selling my old laptop, I had five to six scam offerings each day, and finally found somebody real and local who wanted it after about three weeks. Bleh.)

  5. My personal story from this weekend. At 7pm or so, we were musing about looking for a new dresser for my 13 year old son. At 7:02 I was perusing listings. At 7:03 I emailed a prospective seller. At 9:15pm I had purchased and picked up two dressers for 55 dollars (one was 50, the other one was 5!). Both solid wood, dove-tailed joints, blah blah. One oak, one walnut, both work great. Thanks Craig!

  6. I was recently introduced to, which allows users to search CL listings and see the results in an e-Bay style interface, complete with thumbnails (for posts with pictures) and the post title information. To specify your location, you just type in your ZIP code. CraigLook then searches all listings within the specified number of miles of your home–something great for someone like me who lives right between two Craigslist cities.

    Once you have initial results, you can use checkboxes to select or clear specific categories. To search for that desired canoe, just click Boats, and the rest of the results are filtered out automatically.

    The only thing that sucks (for me) is that the default search radius starts at zero miles, assuming you want results only in your home area. That might be fine for city dwellers, but it is only a minor inconvenience. I’ve only been using it for a few days, so I’m not sure if you can set a different default number for the search radius. It is definately worth a try.

  7. After reading the Wired article I have to say that Craig Newmark is the new Andy Warhol ie an expert at vague non-answers. I found my current job through craigslist: shortest interview ever (perhaps four questions), pays well, great people, we leave the office early almost every day (1pm yesterday for example).

  8. Craig and Jim are inspirational for their complete lack of interest in pursuing money (which may be easy if your site incidentally grosses $100 million a year). I like their incidental rejection of additional monetization.

  9. I like that I can browse CL on my phone (G1) with no problem, since it doesn’t have any fancy JavaScript to break the page or slow it down.

    @#8 Hyyouko

    I think any big and well-known site will have its share of scams. I certainly don’t think if CL upgraded its design to have fancier/web 2.0 stuff that all of sudden the scammers would disappear.

  10. I found my cat, car, truck, and house, all on Craigslist. It’s awesome.

    I occasionally gripe about the lack of detail in the searches, but really I’d rather keep it the way it is than end up with any bloat whatsoever. Ie: try searching for a car from the 60’s? You have to do at least 10 different searches. But again, each search takes so little time that it’s not that big of a deal.

  11. KISS works well for Craigslist, and it’s a fortunate side-effect of running a non-profit that they don’t have to keep ‘adding value’ by crufting it up with counter-productive new features, toolbars, etc.

  12. All of the great (and horrible, now that I think about it) things and events in my life have come from CL.

    jobs, houses, things, friends, lovers

    The only way I want it improved is for them to somehow only allow “real” ads and responses. And then, of course, world peace wouldn’t be too far behind.

  13. I can’t imagine it being any different…it. just. works. Plain and simple. As @4 Todd points out, it’s just like classified listings. You have something to sell, I’m looking for something to buy. Describe it, put up a picture. Done.

    Craigslist got me my last two rentals, a drum set, my couch, kitchen table, and maybe a couple other things I’m missing. I sold a few things so far. In fact, I’m waiting for a call from someone interested in buying a retro bar stool tonight.

    One gripe I have with Craigslist, and this really has everything to do with the sellers and not the site, is the number of people who don’t include pictures on their posting. Seriously? You don’t have a means to take a few pictures of the house you’re renting out?

  14. I think it’s sadly a common mindset for some of those in the business world that if you’re not trying to be the next Microsoft/Google/Apple/Whatever, if you’re not trying to be a wildly successful monster of a company, well, something must be wrong with you.

    While as a small business owner I understand trying to maximize value, and trying to find the ‘highest and best use’ for things, I also understand what it means to have balance and a middle ground and goals that include freedom and happiness as well as making a living. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be small, stable, and profitable.

    While some of the crits in the article are thought provoking, a lot of it reads like what some business major thinks is ‘wrong’ about CL while totally missing the point and not even asking what CL might really be trying to do…

  15. Thanks Cory – Of course I recognized that by stating the case ‘against’ so strongly at the beginning I invited people to read the whole piece as very negative, but I hope for those who made it all the way through a complete picture emerged. There is so much great and fascinating stuff about craigslist that didn’t make it into the published version, even at a generous 6000 words . I’m posting as much of it as I can this week for people who want to indulge the obsession. Sometime I should write something about the geek+haiku love affair. It was already well underway in the late 80’s on the WELL. Anybody know when it started? -Gary Wolf

  16. The case ‘against’ was argued persuasively. Craigslist UI is a retrograde nightmare in many ways, but the piece didn’t touch on the emotional factors of why users love it. Indeed, most perceive it as the very embodiment of usability, and the design is a key factor in the world’s greatest anti-brand.

  17. I read the piece and couldn’t decide if title was supposed to be ironic or not.

    For accuracy it should have been called “Why Craig’s list is so cool.”

    I don’t think it made any case ‘against’.

  18. No Javascript. No Flash. How dare they?

    Craigslist is a terrible abomination against design all right… because no one’s getting paid to do monthly redesigns. Bah.

    Imagine that, a fast-loading simple site that does just what it says it’s going to and nothing more. No wonder Wired doesn’t get it, it’s against their worldview.

  19. God forbid they could upgrade to proper forum software. It’s that and the spam ads for webcams and the like that are the only truly frustrating aspects of Craigslist, IMHO.

  20. jungletek – you sound like someone with vast experience designing and running the most popular sites on the internet. Which ones do you run?

  21. It’s also interesting to me how similar Google search and Craigslist are, from a user’s standpoint. Google’s other services use more complicated components, but the basic search is stunningly simple and completely effective.

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