Craigslist is an iconic website. It’s outrageously ugly, incredibly useful, amazingly relevant, and outstandingly successful. But why?
I think Craigslist has some great SEO things going for it. So, I’m going to tell you a little bit about that. But it’s way more than SEO. Anytime a site has “great SEO” it also has other amazing things happening. “Great SEO” never appears in isolation.
What follows in this article is a list of Craigslist’s most notable features, SEO included, and what we can learn from them.
Focus on Functionality More Than Design Flair
Craigslist hasn’t won an Addy.
And you know what? They don’t care.
If you judge Craigslist by design, it would probably fail. They have four colors on their homepage: Internet blue, boring gray, black, and tiny pale yellow highlights here and there. And not a single image. Just line after line of blue text on a white background.
Craigslist did not design for eye candy. They designed for raw, unfettered functionality. This site purrs along with a suite of powerful techniques that turns any developer green with envy. Let me point out just four of their techniques:
- Killer load times. By trimming the fat, Craigslist is able to shave lag off its load time. Think about the kind of load time your site could have if it didn’t load a single image!
- Automatic conversion funnel. If you go to Craigslist, you will convert. You are either buying, selling, or looking. Either way, the conversion action — posting or clicking on an ad — will almost invariably occur.
- High engagement. The average user spends time — lots of it — on Craigslist. No bouncing going on here!
- Streamlined organization. From the start, Craigslist was focused on organizing information. They created an organizational matrix that could receive and present lots of information in all varieties. And as the amount of products and services mushroomed, the organizational structure did what it was supposed to do. Information is organized logically into nine main categories. Most of it even fits above the fold!
When you hire a web dev firm, don’t just look for cool designs. Instead, look for top-notch functionality. I think that there’s a happy medium between best-of-the-best functionality and great design. I’m a big fan of simple designs. A good site has a clean design and great functionality.
So, what’s the deal? Why does Craigslist insist upon spartan design in a day of flashy responsiveness and eye-popping awesomeness?
Let Buckmaster, Craigslist’s CEO tell you:
We have been fortunate to do well by doing good, whatever phrase you want to use, by focusing only on improving the service for users.
There it is — focusing on the users. Even in the field of web design, a contentious battle ground between designers, developers, and SEOs — gives way to the users. That’s customer service for you!
What can we learn?
- Make sure your site is functional before trying to make it beautiful. Functionality is its own beauty.
- Keep the user in mind.
- Organize information logically. In the words of a Kissmetrics article, “Ask yourself, ‘How can I organize all this so that it makes sense to the visitor?’”
Optimize For Local Queries
Craigslist has more than 700 local sites in 70 countries.
Craigslist was born in the San Francisco Bay area in March of 1995. (Yes, it’s that old.) Since that day, it has spread — first to Boston, then to seven of the largest cities in the U.S., and on and on.
Craigslist is all over the world. But they don’t do the typical local optimization techniques that we think about — directory listings, citations, Google+ accounts, etc. They’re so big they really don’t need to.
Their strategy is to create local market subdomains. For example:
These domains are SEO genius. Each URL leads with the local market name, and includes the power of the Craigslist brand name. As a result, Craigslist has incredible results in each local market.
Here’s a query that combines “VHS for sale” with a local city name. Craigslist is in the number one position.
For Atlanta dog owners searching for a walking service, Craigslist ranks at number three:
For one of the most competitive keywords on the Internet, “iphone,” Craigslist crushes the competition with above-the-fold domination.
What can we learn?
- If you’re a national brand with local service locations, use localized subdomains that contain the name of the local area.
- Use geo-specific longtail keywords as part of your SEO strategy.
Make Real Connections
Few websites do a better job of creating personal connections than Craigslist. In spite of our uber-connected digital existence, Craigslist breaks through with the ability to bring people together.
I’m not just talking about the personals section.
I’m talking about the vast majority of interactions on Craigslist. You want to buy someone else’s sofa? Sell your used Nexus? Find a used car for under $5k?
If so, you can go to Craigslist and find what you need. Then you’ll probably meet someone in your area. You’ll make a connection. You might get to know someone.
That’s part of the appeal of Craigslist. It’s more than the feeling of I-scored-a-great-deal-on-a-sofa, but the sense of I’m-buying-local-and-invested-in-my-community. Which is good.
More and more websites are discovering the power of the personal. Even Wikipedia is meeting the world on a more personal level by hosting the Great American Wiknic. The Internet has not denuded us of social interaction or relationships. Instead, with sites like Craigslist, it’s making the world a bit more personal.
What can we learn?
- Bring a personal touch to your website by encouraging comments, and giving your own feedback.
- Create a forum where users can meet, interact, and give and take advice.
Let Users Contribute
Craigslist would be nothing more than a few bytes in the backwaters of the Internet if it weren’t for crowdsourced content.
Craigslist’s exabytes of information are generated and uploaded by you.
Craigslist doesn’t limit you to merely posting pictures of your apartment for rent. It’s a place where you can speak your mind, talk about your house purchasing experience, or ask questions of the community. I mentioned forums above. Craigslist is the king of forums.
This is user-generated content. That’s how Craigslist lives. Its discussion forums are lively places indeed.
User-generated content (UGC) is like atomic energy for SEO. Most Internet users are engaged enough to provide input in the form of comments and forum questions. By harnessing this form of social SEO, you can create a powerhouse of keywords, discussion, and indexed content that will attract incredible results. It’s especially powerful in a post-Hummingbird era.
The forum discussions on my site Quicksprout.com are a great example of this. The forums receive tons of organic traffic. These users aren’t finding the forums with branded searches. They’re just typing in longtail queries, often in question form, and getting pointed to the forums.
UGC leads to a site that constantly generates new forms of content that you can submit to search engines. Doing so is an excellent way to increase one’s search visibility and associated metrics.
This isn’t about selling. This is simply about being a place where discussion can take place.
What can we learn?
Embrace UGC. It could usher in insane amounts of new traffic.
Free is Good
Most of the time, Craigslist is free. You can list a car for sale, and pocket 100% of the money you make from it. Craigslist doesn’t take a commission or charge a fee. You can run a successful business buying and selling Craigslist stuff, and never pay Craigslist a dime.
We’re suckers for free. And Craigslist gets that. That’s why everything is mostly free.
Forbes described Craigslist’s business model like this:
[It is a] business model which, by any rational standard, is completely insane. And yet it’s also been shockingly successful, at least in terms of traffic. Craigslist has revolutionized the classified advertising market with its free listings for everything from real estate to jobs to personals.
Did you catch that? “Free” and “traffic.” They go together.
Let’s be clear, though. Craigslist does make money. And sometimes you do have to pay — like for job ads in big cities.
But there’s a ton of free going down on Craigslist.
What can we learn?
Give things away for free. It’s not going to make you poorer. In fact, it will probably make you richer in the long run.
You may not make the world’s next Craigslist, and that’s okay. That’s not really the goal. The goal is to learn from one of the world’s most popular sites.
Craigslist is doing some things right, and with a bit of strategic imitation, you can do these things right, too.
What are some other Craigslist SEO tactics that you can use?