Internet advertising has taken a $2bn chunk out of the $19bn classified advertising business in the US, and Google wants in.
Screenshots of the company's secret weapon to achieve this goal, Google Base, finally surfaced this week. Google denied that this glimpse of its secret under-construction destructor fleet implied that a launch of Google classifieds was imminent, and described Google Base as merely a test mechanism for advertisers to load content onto Google.
But it's clear that the potential to tap into a new lucrative business is there, with the large, soft, flabby underbelly of Craigslist a first step.
Craigslist represents the low hanging fruit for Google. While bourgeoise civic life in its home town of San Francisco is unimaginable without Craigslist - it's the city's scrappy noticeboard for everything from accommodation to quickie knee-tremblers - the operation has little foothold beyond the coastal United States. And it has an Achilles heel.
Craigslist charges for employment ads and runs the rest as a loss leader. But by design it prevents job applicants from searching for jobs nationally: they have to go to each local Craigslist and type in the same criteria.
"It would be such an amazing assistance if craigslist would allow multiple city searching so that results from various cities would appear in the same window. I have been looking for a job and am willing to relocate... but the lack of this feature requires hours more of time spent scouring each local website... This would be such a huge asset to your loyal craigslist searchers. PLEASE DO IT...", wrote one job-seeker on the site's forum.
But when an enterprising developer created a program that could do just that - search across each local Craigslist - the application was banned because it violated Craigslist's "local philosophy".
"Is craigslist for users or not?" responded unhappy users.
"God, some of you people are so damn and lazy. And stupid," shot back the Craigies.
Already an operation with global scale, Google has no need to introduce such spurious limitations. So one down, one to go. But what about Craigslist investor eBay?
That requires a whole new skills set, as well a fully functional payment system - as PayPal co-founder Max Levchin spelled out for us here. EBay's market lead has been a toil to defend, and the company's No.1 competition isn't a rival, but the armies of scamsters and phishers who target the site. Google's tepid progress with its shopping comparison engine Froogle suggests that it doesn't readily transfer its skills to a new business.
While Google can take out Craigslist without a blink, taking on eBay will be no cakewalk. Or spacewalk.
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