Craigslist Tries To Improve Its Image(s): Inline Photos Appearing Alongside Listings

Craigslist has been making a lot of moves to ensure that third party developers get off its lawn, but the listings giant is also, it seems, trying to make that lawn a little more attractive for residents. At some point not too long ago it seems, the site quietly introduced a feature that lets users view images inline, on the same page as category listings, and when you hover your cursor on the thumbnail image, it enlarges. In the past, users would have to click through to specific entries to see those pictures; this feature makes that no longer the case, at least in some categories.

It’s a small move, both figuratively and literally. But it’s a sign that Craigslist itself is incorporating some of the features that third parties have been developing for sites that utilized listings “scraped” from Craigslist. The improvements come at the same time that Craigslist has been making a lot of moves to restrict how its content gets used elsewhere. Most notably, it has sent cease and desist letters to those sites that scrape its data to use in third-party listings services; and some of those have progressed into actual lawsuits. Craigslist also cut off the ability for Google and other search engines to index its listings in its cache, by excluding high-level categories in its robots.txt file. And last week it began to display an exclusivity clause for all new postings, although now that exclusivity clause has been removed again.

The inline images come in the form of a small bit of text that appears on the left side just below a category search. Click on “show images” and they appear alongside the listings heading:

“Hide images” will get them to disappear again:

Putting your mouse over the image will make it appear larger:

As with everything else on the site, the inline image option is very understated. And it only seems to appear in sections of the “for sale” category, not in any of the others. It was brought to our attention today by an anonymous tipster. PCAdvisor, which picked up on the new feature in the middle of July, also seemed to be in the dark about how long the it was there:

“I’m honestly not sure when it debuted. Could have been last week, could have been six months ago. All I know is, I didn’t notice it until now. Maybe you didn’t, either.”

For what it’s worth, it looks like this may have been a feature that Craigslist has been experimenting with for a while, with the show image option appearing the upper right corner earlier this year.

The site’s strategy to refresh itself and bring people back to using it as a primary source of information has been a longer-term effort. It was looking to hire a usability expert to make a “faster, friendlier and easier” Craigslist back in April.

It’s still not quite clear what the real motivation is behind Craigslist’s recent moves to restrict access to its content.*

Commercial reasons may be at the heart of Craigslist’s decision to cut off the scrapers. Third-party sites like Padmapper (currently being sued by Craigslist), which were celebrated for making the text-heavy Craigslist considerably easier to use, have been pretty unequivocal about the fact that they sent all traffic back to Craigslist.

But at least one of the third party developer who got a C&D letter did admit to TechCrunch that there was good money to be made in AdSense ads running alongside his re-listing service (in its lifetime, his site, which was a side project, made $24,000; since the C&D letter from Craigslist, it has been shut down). So who knows: maybe Craigslist is getting ready to introduce more ads itself.

But there may be some higher ethical arguments here, too. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out yesterday, “We understand that Craigslist faces real challenges in trying to preserve its character and does not want third parties to simply reuse its content in ways that are out of line with its user community’s expectations and could be harmful to its users.” The EFF counts Craig Newmark as a member of its advisory board, and Craigslist contributes to the EFF.

Making images more prominent may be a sign that there is a bigger strategy at play here for CL to try to keep more users directly on its site by improving is usability, but Craigslist could take that a lot further.

As the anonymous tipster who contacted TC noted: “It still looks like shit, but I guess it makes the site more functional.”

For starters, the company has yet to launch its own native mobile apps. As with the CL scraping websites, there seem to be plenty of CL mobile apps (here’s the iOS search results for example). Some of these are sold, and some are free; but none appear to be officially linked to the site, although there are versions of the site optimised for tablets and mobiles.

Of course, there are a many among those who contribute to Craigslist’s 30 billion monthly pageviews who like the simple, no-frills approach that Craigslist takes.

But for those who are looking for more bells and whistles, the startup world is certainly heeding the call. Services like Zaarly and Yardsale are going after specific vertical categories like hired help and individuals selling their own used items, and there are even very occasional examples of services never intended as Craigslist competitors showing signs of being used for that purpose anyway.

The question is whether users who want more will have the patience to stick around to see what Craigslist does next, or move on to the next service.

“I’d rather see Craigslist get knocked down than to bumble along with ‘improvements’, but at least it’s a sign that they’ll try,” noted reader Andrew Chen to me.

*With every article I have written, I’ve tried to contact Craigslist for comment and have never had a response.