Few newspapers use online classified interactive features

Few newspapers use online classified interactive features

Thompson, David R

This article catalogs the content features and interactive functions of classified advertising sites currently in use by online newspapers in the United States.

For the first time, newspaper readers have instant access to local news from long distances. Today’s local newspaper from “OurTown, USA” may be read today by people across the nation and around the world.

However, the thought of global publication still feels foreign to some newspaper publishers. And there are other nearby audiences that newspapers and their advertisers should not ignore.

For example, an online reader told one of the authors, “I don’t live in town. I live out in the country. We’ve got a really long driveway, and, frankly, I got tired of walking out there every day to get the paper. So, I canceled my subscription and started reading the paper online.”

Another regular reader said, “I have a vision impairment and have to use a screen magnifier to read your online edition. I can’t even think about reading a printed paper. My eyes just can’t see that tiny type.”

A faculty member at a college in a town 25 miles from a newspaper’s publishing site wrote by e-mail: “Our new faculty hire found our job announcement online in a classified ads section. If she hadn’t seen the ad on the Internet, she wouldn’t have known about the job. And we would have missed her. We found the right person for the job thanks to the online classified ads.”

During development of a classified ads site for a small, independent newspaper, one of the authors received several e-mail messages from people who asked: [paraphrased] “When is this newspaper going to put classified ads online. I’m thinking about moving to the area, and I want to look for a job now – from here.”

To a newspaper organization, classified advertising means cash flow; it makes the payroll.

Perhaps for the first time since the United States Postal Service was created, local newspapers have a cost-effective way to expand their customer base. Online classified advertising may help to develop this expanded customer base through contact with a larger population of potential subscribers and by facilitating a long-distance interaction between buyers and sellers.

To invite expanded readership, both technical and human aspects of online advertising should be considered.

In his book Megatrends, Naisbitt’ described the balance between technology and humans:

High tech/high touch is a formula I use to describe the way we have responded to technology. What happens is that whenever new technology is introduced into society, there must be a counterbalancing human response – that is high touch – or the technology is rejected. The more high tech, the more high touch.

Naisbitt argues that people need people. A desire for human contact is one side effect of a high-tech culture. Relationships between people become increasingly important as the relationship between humans and computers develops.

In many newspaper buildings, the classified advertising department is located just inside the front door. Personal contact between a newspaper and its readership may be greatest here. Feedback about news stories is infrequent. In some cases, interaction between the public and its newspaper begins and ends in the classified ads department.

Now, a newspaper may adopt a similar interactive business practice by encouraging buyers and sellers to develop a relationship with the newspaper through its online classifieds.

According to McCourt:2

Expertise in helping write/design ads, selling (rather than accepting) business, and maintaining a long-term, local relationship with customers and helping them be successful are more important than owning a press – and the same assets make many newspapers successful online. It’s the people and the relationships that make the marketplace work.

This article concentrates on content features and interactive functions now in use by online newspaper classifieds sites. Training issues, classified department policy and other organizational factors are beyond the scope of this article.

Twelve Features and Functions of Online Newspaper Classified Advertising Sites

1) Site Mapping

Site mapping is the overall organization of the site, the determination of various levels of the site’s information hierarchy. A site map may be thought of as a “blueprint” for hypertext structure – what gets linked to what.

Whitaker3 describes one principle of designing Web sites: “Design to allow the user to maintain situation awareness…. Do they know how deep they are in the site? Can they relate the information they are currently seeing with where they came from and from what their goal site is?”

To assure situation awareness, site maps should adhere to the three-click rule.

Although not defined in existing literature as “the three-click rule,” common practice dictates and one study in particular mentions this principle of effective site mapping, or “story-boarding” the information hierarchy of a web site.

Robinson and Kaye4 state: “Users should be able to navigate a Web site easily. All pages should link back to the home page, and content should never be more than three clicks away.”

Classified sites that force a user beyond the third click are poorly organized. To rely on the motivation of a user who is searching for a specific item in an online classifieds site is simply inconsiderate.

The authors recommend adherence to the three-click rule in designing the structure of online classifieds sites.

2) New URL for Classifieds

A new URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or Web address), different from the URL used to access a newspaper’s editorial content may indicate one of two things: (1) The newspaper is “branding” its in-house classifieds site. For example, one online newspaper with which one of the authors has been associated uses “www.ShowMeNews.com” for its editorial content and “www.ShowMeClassifieds.com” for its online classifieds. These URLs are intended to be easy to remember and easy to promote. (2) A new URL may indicate that the newspaper’s online classifieds are hosted by an outside organization, a third-party host.

3) Host of the Site

The authors have found two types of host for online classifieds: in-house and third party.

The “host” is the server on which classified ads are located. In-house classifieds sites are operated by the newspaper organization itself. A third-party host is an outside company that obtains classified ads from the newspaper, converts them to HTML format and delivers them to users via the Internet.

New companies have been formed to handle online newspaper classified ads. Local ads as well as national classifieds networks are delivered to users worldwide.

A new form of advertising organization has emerged. Companies such as AdOne, AdQuest, Classifind, Classifieds2000, Yahoo Classifieds and others have responded to the needs of newspapers that may not have the inhouse resources or the desire to publish classified ads on the World Wide Web.

4) Navigation Options

Navigation in cyberspace involves four basic functions: move forward to the next file, move back to the previous file, jump to a linked file and jump to content by using a keyword search.

All four functions allow users to find information by using browser software such as Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The “next” and “back” buttons are used for a step-by-step progression through the site map. Keyword searches and some hyperlinks allow users to “jump over” some levels of the site map. Designed effectively, jump options may be used as shortcuts to specific information.

Heads recommends offering both step-by-step and jump options for navigation within a Web site: “Providing multiple methods for completing the same task – this allows the user to choose one that’s easiest for the individual.”

Online classified advertising sites should accommodate those who are “just browsing” for items of interest. These people may use the step-by-step navigational functions. Others may have a specific product or service in mind. They want to find relevant ads fast. These people may choose to use jump functions built into an online classifieds site.

5) Major Headings or indexes for classifications

Some newspapers, online and in print, still use classification numbers along with text headings.

These numbering systems for classified ads categories probably make sense only to people who work in newspaper classified ads offices. For example, why would a reader associate the number “714” with “For Rent-North”?

Most online classifieds sites use a system for classifying content from general to specific. In other words, an online search for a computer sales job announcement may begin on the newspaper’s home page, move to a general index of classified ads (jobs, real estate, transportation, merchandise), move to a general index of jobs (general employment, sales, professional, medical), to either an index of sales jobs or a display that lists all the sales jobs in this edition.

“Templates” of ad categories often are used by third-party hosts. Online, the published look for AdOne sites, for example, is the same for all newspapers that subscribe to that service. However, a variety of looks, including use of classified ads categories, may be found for different in-house hosts.

6) Select an Ad

“Select an ad” is an interactive feature that serves the same function as using a red pen to circle ads of interest in a printed newspaper.

For example, if a user finds an attractive announcement for a sales job, he or she may want to have the ad, itself, handy when writing a letter of application. Printing the file that contains the ad would seem logical.

However, when the printer churns out 35 pages of employment ads, the user realizes there is a need for improved interactivity.

A “select an ad” feature allows users to check a box next to the ad. Basically, this copies and pastes the ad to a separate file, sometimes linked by a button that says “Show selected ads” or “View selected ads” or “Show me my shopping basket.”

This means that only the ads of interest will be printed from that separate file

In most cases, multiple ads may be selected within the same classification or category. For example, any number of used car ads may be selected, but the “shopping basket” file must be saved or printed before moving to real estate ads.

Site designers may wish to build in a warning that says something such as follows: “Leaving this section will cause you to lose your selected items. Would you like to print them now?”

7) Save Selected Ads to File

This function should not be necessary. Browser software handles this task. The authors have found no reason to incorporate this into an online newspaper classified ads site.

As mentioned, a friendly warning should be offered if some content – such as selected ads – will be lost without using the browser’s “save file” function.

8) Place an Ad

For online newspapers, this may be a content feature, an interactive function or a combination of both. Anything that encourages or enables sellers to place an ad in the newspaper (print, online or both) counts. This could be the phone number of the classified ads department or an electronic form.

Some newspapers may not publish classified advertising online.

Given that these newspapers have some form of Internet presence (from a one-file announcement of how to contact the newspaper to a full-blown news only site), a simple information file that includes the phone number (with area code) and complete mailing address of the newspaper’s classified ads department may be provided.

Some newspapers include an e-mail link to the classified ads department. By e-mail, users can send ad copy or requests for a phone call from the newspaper’s classified ads department.

Other newspapers may display an electronic form that may be filled in onscreen by the user and submitted directly to the classified ads department through the Internet. Some users may choose to print the form, fill it out by hand and FAX, mail or hand-deliver it to the newspaper.

9) Push

“Push” is an interactive feature that allows information to be sent from the host computer to the client computer by e-mail. Users do not “pull” this information out of the host (the online newspaper). Rather, the newspaper “pushes” information to the user through e-mail.

In the authors’ opinion, this is an important function and of particular use to someone waiting for an item to be offered for sale.

If a user collects classic cars, the user may visit a site and peruse the classified ads for vintage autos. For example, the collector may wish to acquire a 1932 Ford Coupe. If today’s classified ads do not include an ad for a 1932 Ford Coupe, the user may fill out a request form.

Usually, such request forms ask for keywords. For this example, the user may request ads that contain the words “Ford and Coupe.” At any time while the request is active ads published that include the word “Ford” and the word “Coupe” automatically will be “pushed” to the user.

Site designers may wish to consider a timed request. For example, the request may expire automatically after two weeks.

If a user wants a Ford Escort but only requests the keyword “escort,” ads for “escort services” will be sent by push technology.

10) Multimedia

Is there a better way to prove that an old, rusty Buick “runs great. dent in driver’s door. red. good work car.” than to show a 10- or 20-second video of the car as it is started? Rev the engine a little. No black smoke? Sold!

And who can resist a cute puppy that is “free to a good home” when that little guy can be seen chasing a ball or eating a newspaper. Sold!

Put a video clip online and “Bam!” The auctioneer’s hammer can be heardnot to mention live auctions using teleconferencing techniques. Perhaps such live online events could be hosted for a fee by newspaper classified ad operations.

11) Support Material

As defined for this article, “support material” means value-added content that appears within an online classified ads section. This value-added content may be a loan calculator, an up-to-date listing of mortgage rates or a lesson on writing an effective resume an article about whether to buy or lease a car.

12) Banner Ads in Classified Section

Online classified ads sites provide “additional” space in which to place banner advertising.

Traditionally, newspaper organizations have had display advertising departments and classified advertising departments. “Classys” are one thing; display is another. The two department managers have not have been trained to think in terms of cooperation or partnership.

In the authors’ opinion, it is time for an attitude adjustment.

Classified ad sites with no banners maybe considered “wasted space.” And, because online classified ads site categories are often organized from general to specific, advertisers have the opportunity to target banner ads effectively to the content of the page on which they appear.


The authors conducted a content analysis of online newspaper classified ads sites. This was a pilot study intended to identify content features and interactive features currently in use. The data and findings presented in this summary may be used as baseline information for future studies of online classified advertising.

For this pilot study, a systematic sample was obtained from Editor & Publisher’s online listings of newspapers in the United States.6 Only daily, general interest newspapers published in the United States were considered. The Editor & Publisher site listed 790.

A sample stratified by circulation, as an indicator of relative size of the newspaper organization, was considered, yet rejected. In the researchers’ opinion, the World Wide Web allows all content providers the opportunity to be perceived as “big,” first-rate operations.

Among the newspapers that were selected by the sampling process were: The (Baltimore) Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, The Hays (Kansas) Daily News, Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau), Summit (Frisco, Colo.) Daily News, (Kalispell, Montana) Daily Inter Lake, (Biddeford, Maine) Journal Tribune, The Ridgecrest (California) Daily Independent and The (Lihue, Hawaii) Garden Island.

An information location task was assigned.7 Coders were instructed to find a classified ad for a specific product and to code all banner ads encountered during the search. This was one of the first systematic studies of online newspapers that coded data beyond the home page. All levels within the classified ads site were coded.

Usable data were obtained from 75 daily, general interest online newspapers in the United States. All data were collected during one week in September 1998. The total number of “pages,” or files accessed, was 280. This is an average of 3.73 pages per online newspaper.

To establish a measure of intercoder reliability, an additional seven sites (10 percent) of the original sample were coded by both researchers. The same ads on the same edition of the same online newspaper were coded independently by each researcher.

Completed coding sheets were given to a third, independent researcher who tallied agreement and computed Scott’s Pi Index scores for each variable. Scott’s Pi was used because it accounts not only for agreement but for probability of disagreement. The minimum level of acceptability for Scott’s Pi is p = .75. Use of Scott’s Pi requires reporting level of agreement for each variable. No overall “percent of agreement” is provided.8

The Scott’s Pi value was 1.0 for the following variables: New URL; Host of Site; Number of Headings; Select an Ad; Push; Multimedia; Support Material. Scott’s Pi was .81 for Navigation Options; .72 for Place an Ad and .70 for Banner Ads in Classified Ads.


Of the 75 sites coded, seven had no classified ads online. Three had no link at all to classified ads; three had “classifieds” links that jumped to an information page that instructed users to contact the newspapers’ classified ads department and one site had a link to a classified ads file that said “under construction.”

In other words, 68 (91 percent) of the 75 sites studied published classified ads online.

Here are the findings for each of the 12 features and functions identified in this article. (Note: Some percentages do not add up to 100 because of rounding):

1) Site Mapping

Site mapping was analyzed by the number of clicks required to complete the information location task. In general, it took two or three clicks (beginning with the newspaper’s home page) to locate a classified ad for a BMW. See Figure 1.

2) New URL for Classifieds

Thirty-one (46 percent) of

the 68 online classified ad section used a URL different from that used for the home page of the online newspaper.

3) Host of the Site

The findings show 48 (71 percent) of the 68 online newspaper classifieds sites coded were in-house operations. Twenty (29 percent) newspapers used a third-party company to host their classifieds content. 4) Navigation options

Search functions included keyword search and pulldown menus that were intended to narrow the search, such as “Search for Audi, BMW, Buick, etc.” and “Search by year.”

One (1 percent) newspaper offered online classifieds that could only be searched by keyword and pulldown menus. This allowed the coder to jump to ads that matched the search terms.

Twenty-two (32 percent) used a browse only function. The coder was required to proceed step-by-step, following a series of hyperlinks.

Sixty-five percent (N=44) of the online newspaper classified advertising sites offered a choice or a combination of browse and search functions. For example, the coder clicked on the Classifieds link (browse) from the home page, then clicked on the Automotive link (browse) from the Classifieds index; and selected “BMW” from a pulldown menu (search) that listed makes of cars.

5) Major headings

For the purpose of this study, the number of major headings found in the classifieds index was coded.

Fourteen sites had 10 headings in the classifieds index. AdOne, a thirdparty host, consistently used 10 headings.

One site was coded as “zero” headings. From the home page, the user clicked on a link to “Classifieds.” Rather than allowing users to focus the search, this site simply displayed all the classified ads.

The number of sites shown in Figure 2 equals 59. The other nine sites were outliers, with 23,45,59, 67,68,78, 87,94 and 96 headings in the classifieds index. Most often, these sites simply displayed the classification system – every classification. Some were organized by number, but none was in alphabetical order. Figure 2 does not include these outliers.

6) Select an ad

The majority (N=49, 72 percent) of online newspaper classifieds sites do not include a “select an ad” function of any kind. This means that a user who finds one ad of interest in a long listing must either copy the ad by hand, print the entire file of ads or use the browser’s “save as” function, then try to open the file in a word processing program that recognizes HTML, copy and paste the ad and print it; or, memorize the ad.

Fourteen (21 percent) examples of “select an ad from this classification” were found. Only one of these had a warning message that informed the user that ads already selected would be lost if the user went to another classification.

For example, ads could be selected for printing from the transportation section. But as soon as the user moved to another section, such as real estate, the selected transportation ads were cleared. They were automatically de-selected.

Only four (6 percent) offered the function that allows users to select any number of ads across classifications. In other words, users could select ads from the transportation section, the real estate section, the employment section and others, and the selected ads from all those sections would be displayed. The user could then save the ads to a file by using the browser software’s “save as” function, or the ads could be printed from the “selected ads” file.

7) Save selected ad(s) to file

This was not coded. Browser software performs this function.

8) Place an ad

For the purpose of this preliminary study, “place an ad” was coded as “yes” if any information could be found about how to submit a classified ad for publication either in print or online. This information ranged from a line of text that said “To place a classified ad call [this phone number]” to an electronic form that allowed the user to fill in text fields and submit the form directly to the newspaper’s classified ad department.

The coders did not report any instances of electronic billing, however. Little more than half (N=39, 57 percent) of the sites coded did include some form of “place an ad” function.

9) “Push” or sending e-mail ads to potential buyers

Only 15 (22 percent) of the sites coded had a push function.

In the researchers’ opinion, many online newspapers are missing an opportunity to build a “high-touch” relationship with their online users. When an initial visit to the classified ads site fails to fulfill the wishes of the user, the interaction is over and the potential buyer may be lost.

However, if a user knows that ads matching specific keywords may appear “any day now” by e-mail, then the dialogue between newspaper and reader remains active. When an ad arrives by e-mail, the user may feel a sense of closure, a sense of satisfaction with the interaction between the user and the online newspaper classified ads service.

10) Multimedia

Of the 68 classified ad sites coded, not one used multimedia of any kind. The researchers will watch for emerging forms of classified advertising that take advantage of multimedia communications, one of the strengths of computer-enhanced communication.

11) Support materials

Eighteen (only 26 percent) of the 68 online classified advertising sites coded included this value-added service.

12) Use of banner ads in the classified ads site

Forty-four (65 percent) of the 68 sites coded did place at least one banner ad somewhere in the classified ad section.


This article has identified 12 content features and interactive functions that may be designed into online classified advertising sites.

A content analysis of features and functions used by online newspapers in the United States has been reported. Of the online newspaper sites coded for this pilot study, a high percentage (91 percent) published classified ads online.

However, level of use was relatively low for interactive features such as “select an ad,” “place an ad,” push (classifieds requested by keyword and delivered by e-mail), multimedia and support material (a mortgage calculator, for example).

In the authors opinion, newspapers in the United States have not developed their online classified advertising sites to take advantage of existing technologies for delivering effective, interactive classified ads.

The researchers intend to continue this line of research that examines features and functions of online advertising and how people – newspaper professionals, advertising professionals and readers – use them.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Fall 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.