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The Evolving World of Online Classifieds

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.