Vast.com and Its Ilk Please Some, Annoy Others

Vast.com may be the latest classified ad aggregator to hit the market, but the service is raising some familiar concerns.

Like its competitors, the firm insists it is simply scouring the Web for relevant information based on user queries and driving traffic to that content, just like search engines. However, when required site registration is bypassed, server speeds slackened, and unqualified traffic delivered, classifieds publishers get miffed.

“This is called stealing content…there’s no advantage to me to have them steal,” commented Laurel Touby, founder and CEO of media industry site mediabistro.com, upon learning that Vast.com had linked from its search results to full mediabistro.com job listings pages, even though those pages require registration when accessed on the mediabistro.com site.

Vast.com CEO Naval Ravikant said Vast.com’s crawlers do not automatically register or login to sites, so they must have found passage through the mediabistro.com system via a legitimate entryway.

Others are raising questions of resources.

“Right now we’re not thrilled with the impact [Vast.com] is having on our services,” stated Mitch Golub, president of online auto classified publisher Cars.com. Vast.com’s crawlers “are taxing our server,” he explained, noting that as the Vast.com makes contact with Cars.com’s server to grab listings, they slow it down, which affects the site’s user experience.

Craigslist last year raised similar issues about Oodle, which lists classifieds in a variety of categories including Real Estate, Services, Jobs and Pets. The aggregator complied craigslist’s request to stop crawling its server for classifieds. Vast.com currently features listings derived from craigslist in its results pages.

Vast.com, which launched last week, currently sifts through 40,000 sites to track down job, auto and personal classifieds. “We really are crawling the Web,” explained Ravikant. “We’re not vertical specific….We’re trying to build a much more structured search than what’s out there today.”

Ravikant said the company does not intend for Vast.com to be a destination site per se, but rather a means of getting to classifieds on other sites. The firm offers anyone and everyone the ability to place a Vast.com search engine on their own sites, which would allow visitors to those distributor sites to search Vast.com’s classifieds. Results would appear on the distributor sites. Jobs classifieds aggregator Indeed offers a similar distribution option to sites.

Additional classifieds categories will be made available in the future through Vast.com. At least six months down the road, the firm plans to sell prioritized listings to classifieds advertisers, “very similar to Google’s AdWords,” according to Ravikant. Vast.com site partners would get a portion of that revenue, he said.

Indeed already sells sponsored text links similar to Google AdWords ads, while classifieds search site Oodle runs actual Google AdWords ads alongside classifieds it gathers from across the Web.

Paul Forester, CEO and co-founder of Indeed, which boasts The New York Times Company as a member of its board, said that no publishers have requested that Indeed discontinue crawling their sites. “Every day we get emails and contacts of publishers of jobs that want to be included [in Indeed’s listings],” commented Forester. The company provides aggregated job classifieds to NYTimes.com to supplement the publisher’s own classified ads, and delivers all classifieds in About.com’s job search.

Vast.com is “not in competition” with online newspaper classifieds, stressed Ravikant. In fact, he noted with surprise, “The people who have been most responsive positively are the newspapers.” The way he sees it, the true threat to the newspaper classifieds business comes from sites like Google Base and craigslist. Both allow users to post classified-style listings in some or all categories for free.

There’s no doubt that many classifieds publishers appreciate the traffic boost delivered from aggregator and search site. Still, Cars.com’s Golub says it’s not always such a big boost. Although the site provides feeds to aggregator sites, he commented that Cars.com gets less than 1 percent of its traffic from all aggregator sites combined. Listings are “only part of the process” when it comes to selling cars online, he added. Many sites like Cars.com facilitate connections between car buyers and dealers looking for sales leads.

Some classifieds publishers simply aren’t interested in any extra, possibly un-qualified traffic. Take mediabistro.com’s Touby. She believes that by expressing knowledge of mediabistro.com by visiting it, those who frequent the site indicate they are more qualified than people who may stumble upon it randomly through listings on Vast.com and similar sites. “It dilutes the quality of the candidates,” she insisted.

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