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Is there room for another classified site? Vast thinks so

As noted elsewhere today, Vast.com is the latest entrant into the online classified ads space. It's interesting to see how all these sites are taking slightly different approaches, from Google Base, to Edgeio to Oodle and now Vast. Meanwhile, Craigslist keeps chugging along with its years-old business model and legacy technology. But we digress.

Vast is super web crawler site. It scours the web looking for structured or unstructured classified info. "It's more akin to how Google used to work, which is you leave your data where it is, and we'll find it,'' said founder Naval Ravikant. "And what we do which is hard is extract the structure out of unstructured data and make it searchable.''

Unlike some listings aggregators and crawlers, which rely on a relatively small set of high-value sites for their data, Vast crawls as much of the web as possible. There's a downside to this since it invites in the possibility of junk data. "That's the tradeoff,'' Ravikant said. But he says the vastness of the crawl (excuse the pun) far outweighs the downside.

Vast's approach is different from Oodle, which crawls a select set of sites. "They're aggregating 30 or 40 sites and getting a lot from those guys,'' Ravikant said. ''We don't feel that's sustainable because those guys are going to block you over time. They're going to view you as a competitor.''

And it's different from newly launched Edgeio, which hopes to scoop up specially tagged ads posted on blogs and elsewhere. "The problem with that is there are no results over there,' Ravikant said. "There's less than 20 or 30 classified listings per day put on blogs. (Ravikant added later that he meant individual bloggers, but that some classified sites use blogging software and produce more listings. - Eds) So were in the middle. We're going after real estate brokers, car dealers, job placement agents, small job boards, that kind of stuff. And we pick up the big sites also. And we pick up the small sites, as well.''

Vast is starting with three classified verticals - jobs, autos and personals. But other verticals will be added over time, bringing it up to 20 by years end.

Vast is not necessarily intended to be a destination site. Ravikant forsees other web sites making use of the Vast API to publish listings on their own sites. As for the business model, sponsored classified listings will eventually be added to the results.

The company has raised $5 million so far, and used "very little of it,'' so far, Ravikant said. The San Francisco company has 21 people, most of them overseas.

Mike Masnick at Techdirt has been asking an important question about the rush into the classified ads space, namely: "(W)hat hasn't been made clear is what problem these sites are actually solving. We hadn't heard of people complaining that Craigslist and eBay were too centralized."

Says Ravikant: "The majority of our results come from the long tail...from the thousands and thousands of sites you would never search yourself. For example, if you browse for car results, you'll see how many are coming from little dealer sites you would never know to visit or find...If you want to buy an iPod or a Mini that's easy with these other sites. If you want to buy that Alfa Romeo from 1967, that's hard. The value to the end-user is the long tail.''

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Here's the problem they're solving (from the consumer's POV) -- Did I find the *best* one? That's inherently a problem of completeness, not just sufficiency. (In search-speak this is called "recall".)

If there's a used car *not* listed on Craigslist or Cars.com that has lower mileage and is cheaper, don't you want to know about it? If there's a job that pays more and is closer to home than the one you found on Hotjobs, don't you want to know about it? Some call it the long tail -- it used to be the needle in the haystack pre-Web 2.0. Either way, it's about finding the one thing that you really want. No feed-based or listings-based aggregator can offer that comfort. They have what they have, and not one listing more.

BTW, this point is the real deal. I gave Naval a term sheet after I (1) found a used car that I was looking for, (2) found it for $5K less than similar cars elsewhere, and (3) actually *bought* it from a broker in San Rafael. Victor Kiam would have been proud. I was so impressed, I invested in the Company.

Peter Rip on March 14, 2006 7:49 PM
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"Classifieds" is a legacy term that has less and less meaning on the Internet. Vast is a vertical search site with an API that will allow anyone to offer listings on their own sites.

The innovative thing that they're doing, in addition to the API, is using crawling to create rich, structured data. There are very few sites that do this -- not even Google. Note the dynamic vertical-specific navigation that the site has. Google doesn't have that in its local product.

What we're really talking about at a broader level is the creation of a range of local marketplaces (some with and some without social media dimensions) online. Directories, Newspapers, Verticals and Search. Local commercial has so far been mostly about YP-style listings. That's rapidly changing. Classifieds is an important component of local that people are coming to realize helps make a comprehensive offering -- newspapers clearly understand this.

Craigslist and eBay are "walled gardens" generally where they own both the user and advertiser/seller. Vast steps beyond that into a new, distributed model where listings come from somewhere and consumers encounter those listings somewhere else. No destination site needed; Ravikant says: "I won't spend a dime on marketing."

Local is fundamentally fragmented and Vast's approach is one way of addressing that problem.

Greg Sterling on March 14, 2006 9:51 PM
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I just wanted to to chime in on Oodle. We actually have thousands of sources and employ a hybrid approach to crawling (where we have crawlers that look for new sources as well as specific ones that index listings). This enables us to maintain quality as well as keep the index fresh. Our index gets updated every few minutes which is important given that good listings move quickly and you want to be the first to respond (unlike auctions where you want to be the last).

We also offer an API such that results from our search index can easily be embedded in other sites. It's being employed at a few sites but is not yet publicly available (it will be out shortly). You can find an early implementation at http://houston.backpage.com.

Having said that, I also want to tag onto Greg's comment. Search will be an increasingly important component to the classifieds business. Buyers&Renters need tools to quickly find the best listings wherever they may reside. And by helping make buyers&renters more successful, search helps make classifieds a more efficient and more attractive medium to advertisers (which benefits marketplaces/publishers that sell them).

Craig Donato on March 15, 2006 11:55 AM
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There will continue to be a need for classifieds--online or in print. They're just like old John Wayne westerns--they'll always be around. Trying to figure out how to make the model work with auction sites will be the key. Has there been any company who has successfully merged the two models together?

Dewayne Hamrick on March 15, 2006 8:17 PM
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