Will Craigslist’s dominance continue?

One thing has always puzzled me — is Craigslist successful because of its simplicity?  Or is it because it was first?

I’ve heard the “you can’t be successful unless you’re first” line bandied about a few times, but have never truly believed it.  It was a reason given why not to create a social networking component on Trovix, which I argued against with the example of Facebook versus Myspace, or Google versus Yahoo.  Based on examples with sites that big (and examples of smaller companies continuing to thrive in a niche, such as Vimeo versus YouTube) I’ve always believed that a superior product and/or a compelling value proposition are key ingredients to a product’s success, and while some inertia can be gained from being first (particularly with network effects), it is not insurmountable with appropriate marketing (which is why Trovix now has a social networking component).

But what surprised me today was seeing the success of eBay’s kijiji in Canada.  A hat tip to kitcar for the link.

Kijiji versus Craigslist in Canda

Red line is kijiji and blue line is Craigslist.

In Canada, Craigslist was slow to take off.  As such eBay put serious effort into marketing to gain that all important network effect, and now Craigslist is slowly becoming irrelevant.  The most amazing part is seeing the actual moment the network effect takes hold in late 2007.  If Craigslist was like other companies, they would do what eBay in Australia did.  Back in the late 90s, eBay was king in the US.  However in Australia, some local imitators jumped in, including sold.com.au (which now redirects to ebay).  All of these were handily beating eBay, until a well-coordinated marketing campaign put eBay back in front.  They weren’t as effective in New Zealand though:

Trademe.co.nz versus Ebay.co.nz

Blue line is trademe.co.nz, red line is eBay.co.nz (insufficient traffic to appear on the graph).

The final thing worth noting is that kijiji does in fact have a foothold in the US.  If growth continues (currently a healthy 10% per month compared to 4% for Craigslist) and Craigslist remains stagnant, it’s hard to imagine, but they could eventually win out:

Craigslist versus Kijiji

Red line is craigslist and blue line is kijiji.

There’s a very good example of this sort of slow growth playing out right now with Gmail and the other webmail providers.  It’s slow, but it’s seemingly inevitable that Gmail will be the number one email provider:

Gmail is the orange line, bright blue is AOL and dark blue is Hotmail.

So – back to the original question.  Is it better to have a feature rich site or a more usable but limited site?  There’s unfortunately no easy answer — it all comes down to whether users who want to use your site can get done what they want to get done.  Craigslist has been “good enough” for a long time, and inertia continues to carry them.  However given enough incentive (a site with better features and just enough of an audience to make it worth your while) users can and will swap.  It’ll be interesting to see how kijiji continues to fare in coming years.

Information overload

One important usability principle is to manage complexity for the user.  This means both the UI itself, and contraining the data to prevent overload.  Brandon Walkin wrote a nice article about managing complex UIs, but didn’t talk about managing complex data.

Usually Google does a great job in this field.  Their onebox concept allows them to float up what they think will be most relevant to you in a small snippet.  If they want to give you extra results, they just give you a few and clearly delineate the rest of your results.  Google Finance does a really nice job of different zoom levels of data:

Google Finance zoomed in

and when zoomed out:

Google Finance zoomed out

It’s hard to tell the difference — which is deliberate.  Google put in some very nice smoothing algorithms as well as doing a decent job on adjusting the scale and news for the stock.

One thing that has surprised me is the increasing complexity to Google Maps.  I’m not sure why they keep adding unverified user submitted datas and non-relevant photos, but they do.  Now they provide so much information it’s essentially unusable:

Google Maps

I’ve also noticed lately that if I search for a particular destination, I usually get a large cluster of destination points, as well as an arrow actually pointing to my location (example below is of Massachusetts State House).

Massachusetts State House

The top x data points is usually a good rule of thumb (depending on the size of the display between 10 and 25), or just show 1 if there is a high degree of confidence.  I think Yelp does a pretty nice job with their map – giving you the option of retaining the original data, or updating the top 10, which keeps it nicely manageable.

Google doesn’t stop iterating

One thing you can say about Google is its search results page has been known for its consistency and simplicity.  The most radical addition was the poorly-received (by bloggers anyway) search wiki.  Most changes have been behind the scenes — there has been a lot of additional complexity being continually added to the html source over the years, and plenty of tweaks with how the results are presented, their ordering, and the OneBox.  Google had their unbranded playground, SearchMash, which recently was decommissioned, and they also bucket-tested very select features, but very little actually changed on Google.com.  The site is certainly different to how it was 5 years ago, but it has been so gradual, it’s like watching someone you know age.  If you look at a photo you can see the difference, but otherwise they look the same.

I’m not sure if it’s a direct response to the Microsoft/Yahoo partnership, but in the past few weeks Google appears to be taking broad steps towards changes that now benefit them rather than the consumer, while also pushing out new features.  There was the recently revealed Caffeine, creating a strong connection between new features and the Google brand.  They recently changed the landing page for Google.com, when signed into a Google account so that it defaults to iGoogle rather than the vanilla search page (giving me yet another location to have an unattended chat window open).  The latter is most definitely an attempt by Google to keep users within their sites and expose them to new products (currently Google Latitude and Calendar are featured prominently on mine, even though I had previously customised iGoogle).  Now Google have rolled out some tweaks to their search result page (which I am pretty sure are not being bucket-tested, as I’m sure I saw them tested a couple of years (!!) ago):

Click for a larger view

Click for a larger view

On the left in the red box is something I’m very surprised to see from Google and I was just thinking about the other week.  Filters!  Filters are a surprisingly difficult usability problem, and something I’ve spent a lot of time on.  I’m pleased to see Google has put them on the left (something I believe is more natural to the user), and it’s also good to see they start minimized, but are still noticeable enough so that when you need them they are there.  In this example, I was keen to see more timely details about the AT&T iPhone tethering, and was about to adjust my query when I noticed the filter box and was able to simply ask for results in the last week.

The green box on the right is a relatively subtle change.  My guess is that given the prevalence of wide-screen monitors these days, the clicks on the ads were trending downwards (or perhaps their gaze-tracking machine noticed less eyeballs).  As such they have brought the ads to come sit right next to your results.

However, the fact is that neither of these would be that interesting on any other site.  My original title for this entry was “Google doesn’t stop innovating”, but Google has a tried and true formula, and I think it’s far more accurate to say that they are relentless iterators (at least when it comes to the UI).  Now, if only they would implement the custom re-ordering of the navigation bar based on usage that I suggested to them…