Find stuff faster on Craigslist--if you dare

Craig didn't ask for these helpers, but they're handy.

The simplicity of Craigslist is key to its success, but the classifieds can be clunky when you're shopping for something specific that could turn up anywhere on the map. What if you're willing to drive up and down the West Coast to find a mint Cadillac coupe from the Carter era? Here's where Craigslist stops being simple. It certainly can do the trick, but you'll have to do separate searches from Seattle to San Diego. Since my knuckles are sore, I don't want to click that much.

Crazedlist gathers search results from around the world onto one page.
Crazedlist gathers search results from around the world onto one page. CNET

Two low-key-looking Web sites that provide portals to Craigslist postings from around the world solve the problem. At the Firefox-friendly Crazedlist and Craig's Little Helper, you can forage for a 7-cent thumbtack, a red piano, a date who has a cool house, or whatever else you seek on Craigslist, in every continent, in one swoop.

Crazedlist displays results from a bundle of places on a single page. If you search within a broad region, you'll have to scroll and scroll some more to view what's in each town. I prefer this setup to the default style of Craig's Little Helper, which shows one city at a time. Still, with Craig's Helper, clicking to the next metropolis in your list is easy enough, and far less awkward than having to start from scratch on a new Craigslist page.

In addition, the nifty Listpic shows pictures from Craigslist ads so you can see at a glance whether that car, crash pad, or date looks hot or not (see Rafe's post).

I've been using Crazedlist, Craig's Helper, and Listpic occasionally for a few months. However, their days may be numbered, as Craigslist espouses a zero-tolerance policy against such services and tries to block those that send tons of traffic its way. That's why you must jump through hoops by disabling referrers to get Crazedlist to work.

Last summer, Craigslist asked Google and a bunch of start-ups to stop crawling its listings. SimplyHired>, Indeed, and Oodle, which include millions of classifieds from multiple sources, are among those that complied without apparently stunting business. Oodle CEO Craig Donato told me the inability to show ads from Craigslist is disappointing but not a deal-breaker. FindNearby (more here ), on the other hand, still aims to map items for sale from Craigslist as well as eBay and Amazon, but its Craigslist categories are turning up empty today.

Craig's Little Helper sifts through multiple cities at once.
Craig's Little Helper sifts through multiple cities at once. CNET

Users have asked Craigslist for years to offer multilocation search, but the staff has declined. What's the big deal?

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in an e-mail that data mining by outsiders could erode, cheapen, commercialize, and commoditize Craigslist. I get that--sort of. However, none of the guys who built Craig's Helper, Crazedlist, or Listpic pretends an official affiliation with the site or seems to seek a fortune. Craig's Helper creator Nathan Stretch said he wants to be gentle to Craigslist's servers, so he doesn't crawl hundreds of its city pages at once. However, he does include a chunk of Google text ads, as does Listpic. Crazedlist is free of advertising, unless you count the $11.90 t-shirt for sale. (By contrast, CraigsPal software costs $19.98, so I didn't try it.)

Independent mashups, like those mixing up Craigslist apartment listings on Google Maps, haven't cheapened Craigslist. Instead, they celebrate the open-source spirit and ultimately help Craigslist's users. For instance, I doubt Google Maps would be so beloved or practical had Google not allowed people to make the maps their own.

Buckmaster said Craigslist could break if loads of services freely sampled its data, but he couldn't tell how much traffic currently flows to his domain from third parties. Alexa ratings list Craigslist as faster than 97 percent of other Web sites, and I'm unaware of people griping about its sluggishness. It's hard to imagine that the world's 40th most popular Web site would sink under such pressure.

FindNearby wasn't mapping ads from Craigslist today.
FindNearby wasn't mapping ads from Craigslist today.

Of course, I'm not intimate with the challenges of running Craigslist with a tiny staff. Then again, they have chosen to remain low-key, working out of a modest storefront or in home offices instead of sprawling out in Silicon Valley like so many dot-com juggernauts. The classifieds service has been playing by curious rules from the start, shooting for sustainability rather than exponential profit growth. Puzzled pundits can't grasp why one of the top 10 U.S. Web sites would reject the chance to cash in by popping up a few Google text ads.

The dot-org's emphasis on community rather than commerce is another reason Craigslist blocks sites that comb its postings. Buckmaster said that letting people dip into ads from all over the place at one time would somehow sully the site's purity.

OK, I love how Craigslist brings people together, but that argument feels silly to me. With its help alone, yesterday I sold a food dehydrator and a set of shelves to some cool people who just happened to have lived in my old Chicago neighborhood. Craigslist has helped me find shelter, furnish apartments, and make friends in the process for the past eight years. But what if you consider, say, northern California to be your extended community, not just your corner of San Francisco? The Internet is global; rinse and repeat. The data is out there, people want it, and wherever they are, they will bend it to fit their needs if they can find a way.

I admire the make-it-up-as-we-go-along, renegade spirit of the Craigslist staff, but I wish they were more willing either to organize search results differently or to let responsible third parties do so. People with stress injuries or limited mobility deserve to find things with minimal mouse clicks. I might even pay a small fee for a multilocation interface option. Surely, there must be a way to make Craigslist more helpful without breaking its honor code or its servers. Or, given that I already get so much out of Craigslist for free, is that asking too much?

Oodle no longer combs Craigslist.
Oodle no longer combs Craigslist.

Maybe not, after all. Buckmaster told me that "we do expect to provide more geographic flexibility in searches for adjacent and overlapping geographies." But I should pitch that wishbone for now; there's no word on how that "flexibility" would look or when it might happen.

 

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