Automation is one of those tricky topics where there are lines drawn in the sand, but you don’t know who drew them, how long they’ve been there, or what they mean. Automation is fine and even encouraged in some cases, while it’s frowned upon or outright penalized in others. Sites will offer APIs to allow data access but ban you if you scrape the same data without the API.
Craigslist is one of those lines in the sand, and it’s more firmly drawn than most. Rather than a line, really, I’d say it’s something of a trench. Craigslist, you see, really does not like bots on their platform. They REALLY don’t like bots on their platform.
Some people feel that Craigslist’s simple, unsophisticated site design means that the people running it don’t know what they’re doing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Craigslist actually has some of the most sophisticated bot detection and anti-spam protections available. They’re very good at putting a stop to bot activity, they’re good at removing or flagging posts and blacklisting URLs involved in mass bot posts, and they’re not hesitant to bring a lawsuit to the doorstep of a company providing or using a bot.
Of course, none of this stops people from using bots or developing bots for other people to use. As long as a business opportunity exists and can be protected by a shell company in another country, people are going to try it.
The Problem with Bots
Bots, in some scenarios, can be fine to use. These scenarios generally come down to one thing; the involvement or permission of the sites involved. If a site allows or encourages the use of bots or automation, even in limited terms, using a bot isn’t going to hurt you. Certain bot actions might be limited or filtered – Facebook allows bot-based posting via their APIs but won’t let you scrape user data – but the act of using a bot is relatively safe. It’s pretty rare that Facebook takes someone to court over the use of a bot.
- “USE. You agree not to use or provide software (except for general purpose web browsers and email clients, or software expressly licensed by us) or services that interact or interoperate with CL, e.g. for downloading, uploading, posting, flagging, emailing, search, or mobile use. Robots, spiders, scripts, scrapers, crawlers, etc. are prohibited, as are misleading, unsolicited, unlawful, and/or spam postings/email.”
So when Craigslist says not to use bots, it’s just a blanket ban on any sort of automation software. They have the scripts and detection to back it up, too. If you’re suspected of using a bot, Craigslist will rate limit you, throw captchas in front of you, etc.
The problem then is that to use a bot on Craigslist, not only do you have to violate their terms of service, you have to explicitly be bypassing their security measures. Sure, captcha breakers are available, but that doesn’t mean you’re really allowed to use them. Guns exist but it’s still illegal to shoot people.
For that matter, you know it’s a risky proposition when even people from the Warrior Forum think it’s a bad idea. Botting on Craigslist is just asking for trouble.
A Note on Third Parties
There are some services out there that will automatically post for you on Craigslist. You feed in your information and they make the posts at whatever frequency you want, in however many cities you want. It sounds like a great deal; just pay a hundred bucks a month and let it do its work. If any account gets banned, it’s going to be theirs, not yours, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not likely to protect you. Craigslist will happily send out a cease and desist letter to every businesses that is using one of these services, while actually suing the service itself. And, if you think for a moment that the service in question won’t throw you under the bus the first chance they get, you’d be quite wrong. It doesn’t matter how many steps removed from the process you are; if you’re automatically posting on Craigslist, you’re open to liability.
What To Do Instead
So if you’re not going to bot, but you still want to automate your posting in some way, what can you do? The answer is… talk to some actual humans.
First of all, you want to design the post you want to add to Craigslist. What you’re designing is basically a template. The specific phrasing and wording of the post should vary with each individual posting, so it looks more like individual people are writing the ads, rather than just copying and pasting the same thing. Some tips:
- Use one image, but no more than one. Posts with a lot of images are generally perceived as spammy, at least for those trying to generate leads. Multiple images are good for selling used items or for personals listings, not for lead generation. Make your one image compelling. If you need to, create a library of a few dozen images for use in creating variants of your ads. One single image is all you need to get the (pic) notification next to your listing.
- Keep the post itself simple. You rarely need more than one or two sentences and a link to your landing page. The goal is not to use the Craigslist post to sell your product; it’s to use the Craigslist post to get interested people to visit your landing page, where they can then visit the rest of your site, opt in to your mailing list, or make a purchase. If you want to avoid having your website blacklisted, use a phone number or email address to generate your leads. You need a salesman to answer the phone, of course, so keep that in mind if you go that route.
- Avoid putting a question in your headline. Keep it informational, and keep your text itself as far away from advertisement as possible. You want to get people interested enough to contact you, but you don’t want them to think you’re just posting an ad.
Secondly, you want to make a list of target cities. Big name cities tend to get the most traffic, but also have the most competition for attention. You can balance this with middle of the road cities with smaller populations but less competition. Start with an initial list and adapt it over time; if a city doesn’t perform well, strike it from the list and replace it with another. Here’s a convenient list of 300 you can use.
Third, go on the hunt for a freelancer. There are a lot of different sites you can use to find someone willing to work for you for a pittance. You can use Freelancer.com, EasyOutsource.com, Upwork.com, or even something like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. It doesn’t matter where you find them, just that you find someone for a price you’re willing to pay.
This freelancer’s job is to take your list of cities and to make semi-unique posts using your template on each of them. To this end, they probably need a few resources. You will want to provide them with your template and any images you want them to use, of course. You also want to make sure that they’re either in the USA, or they’re using a USA-based proxy or VPN to access Craigslist. If they don’t have one themselves, you should probably set them up with one. It’s not expensive on top of what you’re already paying them, and it helps protect you.
Make sure your freelancer of choice knows that you absolutely do not want them to use a bot to do the posting for them, because it can get them and you into legal trouble with Craigslist. It might not matter to some freelancer in the Philippines working for $5 a day, but it certainly does to your business.
Each day, when the freelancer has made their selection of posts, have them deliver a list of those posts to you. The links will be useful for you to monitor. You want to track which ones are getting the traffic and which ones are not. If you’re using a website link, you might want to use UTM tracking for each link. If you’re using a phone number or email address, you can use an extension. Gmail allows for “extensions” of your email address, so you could do something like BusinessName+Sacramento@gmail.com and BusinessName+NewYork@gmail.com for unique sources of your email address that still feed into the same inbox. Also listed in that link is a similar .-based method that can be used in a less obvious way, but you have to track what each dot position means.
Every two or three days, send your freelancer back at it. Have them copy the post, create a new post with the ad copy, and submit it. Then have them go back and delete the older post, or repost / renew it. This is a way to “bump” a post on Craigslist to have it appear at the top of the list again.
Incidentally, this is why it’s so hard to get visibility in the top most-used cities. There are tens or hundreds of marketers doing this at any given day, so if you’re not refreshing your posts daily, you’re losing a lot of visibility.
Throughout all of this, you should be tracking your leads and conversions from each source as best as you can. If you find that some posts are doing very well, give a little more love to that location. If you find some cities just aren’t working out for you, remove them from the list. Or, if you don’t want to abandon the opportunity, change up the template for that city.
If any of your posts are flagged or marked as spam, this is a sign that you should dial back on your posting somewhat. Make your posts more unique and less salesy for that given city, or drop the city entirely. Flagged posts are a precursor to having your freelancer’s account flagged, your contact information flagged, and any other unique identifiers added to The List.
There are some “exceptions” to the rules above, though they don’t apply to most of you. The only times you’ll be fine posting via bot on Craigslist are times where you don’t actually care if your URL is flagged, if your account is banned, or if your IP is blacklisted. As you might imagine, these are pretty much entirely black hat companies.
For example, if you’re selling sketchy pharmaceuticals that are of questionably legal availability or origin, you probably don’t care if your site is blacklisted. The supplement or drug you’re selling might just be made illegal in that time anyways. Your site could be delisted from Google and you move on to another in that time. Why bother hiding what you’re doing on Craigslist if you don’t care if you’re caught?
I don’t recommend those kinds of marketing anyway. It’s always, universally, more work for less gain than you would get building an actual, legitimate business in the same amount of time and effort. Just stick with manual posting, and pay someone to do it for you.
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