Why is search up and Craigslist down?

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Last week we shared some new data on how apartment shoppers find a new apartment. One of the surprising findings was that while organic search is quite high, probably higher than 50% of apartment website visits, referral traffic (including Craigslist) is quite low. In this post, we want to talk about some of the online marketing trends that are in play here and why we think multifamily traffic looks the way it does.

First, why is Craigslist down?

Once upon a time, our industry was pretty obsessed with Craigslist. It was free, it had a huge reach, and it was relatively easy. What wasn't to like? We still remember the fall of 2013 when Craigslist rolled out a change to apartment listings that removed embedded images and clickable links from the posts. We had gotten ahead of the issue because Craigslist rolled out the change in October in the state of Texas before taking it nationwide in November. So we were aware of it before it went national and had already blogged about it.

When the change went live, we were the site that explained what happened to the industry. Here's our traffic from 2013:


Clearly, Craigslist was a hot topic in 2013. That no longer seems to be the case. Looking at our own blog traffic, we have seen less interest in Craigslist-related posts. Moreover, the data we shared last week suggests that fewer apartment shoppers are using Craigslist. So... what happened?

Other services moved into Craigslist's space.

The first thing is that other services, most notably Facebook, started to do the things Craigslist did. Many cities now have consignment groups on Facebook where users can post things they wish to sell and coordinate with people who want to buy. Facebook is often a more attractive platform for doing this because it is not anonymous. You'll see the first and last name of the person buying from you and probably a picture or two as well plus any mutual friends you have. It feels safer. Plus posting in these groups is often easier and requires fewer steps than posting on Craigslist. The only thing Craigslist could theoretically have on these groups is broader reach—but Facebook's reach is huge so once these groups became more common in cities that issue was also fixed.

Organic search was never that friendly to Craigslist.

If you search "apartments in (city, state)" you probably won't find Craigslist on the first page of results. You see lots of other online directories. Even if you move to the second page, you'll probably see individual communities before you see Craigslist.

For whatever reason, Google has not been kind to Craigslist on apartment-related searches and as Google became more established as the go-to place when you had a specific intent to fulfill, it's not surprising that Craigslist's star has fallen.

Second, why is organic search so high?

Actually, when we compared these numbers to older numbers, organic wasn't that much higher. Depending on how much direct traffic is going toward organic, we're either right at where we were in 2014 or we're slightly ahead. But in 2014 when we ran numbers on a smaller data set, we saw that around 49% of all apartment website traffic was from organic, so this is mostly in keeping with what we saw back then.

The question, then, is probably something like "why has organic stayed dominant while Craigslist is down and social hasn't climbed much?" The answer, we suspect, goes back to something we said on the blog awhile ago: You can break down the way people use most internet content into interest-based and intent-based usages. Interest-based content does really well on social media. Intent-based performs well on search. Apartment shopping is quite obviously intent-based—no one has a generic interest in apartment communities. So we see people relying heavily on search as part of their apartment shopping process.

What about social?

We'll be tackling this topic in a future post by taking a deep dive look at the small number of properties that are doing well on social media. That said, one brief note to make is that generally speaking the problems here are the same as they always have been: Social media does interest-based media really well. It is far less effective at intent-based because their index of the web is not as easily accessible as a search engine's and most social media networks have poor search platforms anyway.

Another piece here is that social media is organized around people. So any given network is only as valuable as its audience. If an audience is small or disengaged, the network isn't valuable, end of story. Search engines, in contrast, glide past the social networking piece by simply focusing on indexing the web and making it accessible to humans. This focus on function rather than network will almost certainly cause search engines to be far more lasting and durable than social media networks.


For the most part, this data confirms long-standing norms in our industry. Search is important. Referral traffic and social media are generally not reliable. The one new wrinkle is the apparently diminished importance of Craigslist. If you have questions or want to talk more about this, we'd love to hear from you. You can reach out to us via the Talk to Us page. Thanks for reading!


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