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The Media Center at the American Press Institute

Working the Web: Classified Advertising in the 21st Century

July 20, 1998
Reston, Virginia

ON-SITE Reporting from the Conference

Setting Standards
For Classified Ads

Report on NAA Classified Standards Task Force

By Chad Eric Watt
Classified ads in newspapers or on Web sites seek the same goal: getting a buyer and a seller together. Yet the two are created and used in completely different ways. Traditional newspaper classified ads are printed and read in a linear fashion, right down the column, while online ads are electronically searched and selected by readers based on their own criteria.
Finding a way to exchange ink-on-paper classified ads (written in sentences) and online classified ads (constructed in searchable databases) is the goal of a task force set up by the Newspaper Association of America. The first step by the NAA Classified Standards Task Force will be to develop a universal data format carrying all a classified ad's essential information, said Eric Wolferman, NAA senior vice president of technology, at The Media Center's 1998 Classified Ad Conference. Photo: Eric Wolferman
Eric Wolferman

"All we want to do is package up the data so you know where it is," he said.

With all the information in an ad tagged and classified, the ad can be easily transferred between media and shared among classified ad networks. The format would be used to enable those transfers -- not to change how a newspaper or Web site presents its classified ads, Wolferman said.

The committee will also develop a standard "style book," or dictionary of terms, to be used in classified ads. Again, a newspaper could employ those terms only for internal use and retain the abbreviations and terms its readers are accustomed to.

The committee, which includes members from the newspaper and technology industries as well as representatives from the automotive, real estate and job-placement industries, first met in May 1998 and is working quickly to develop the standard. The committee has agreed on using XML, an open-ended computer data-description language, as the basis for its format. Data could be converted to XML and then entered into a newspaper's classified ad system. Data generated from a classified system could also be converted automatically (and then transmitted to another medium).
The choice of XML (Extensible Markup Language) won the support of database experts at the conference. Using XML would not chain the entire industry to a particular database vendor and would create the potential for an industry-wide database, said Phil Schnyder, president of askSam Systems, a Perry, Fla.,-based database software company.

Having a portable format would leave newspapers and Web sites able to aggregate their classified ad content and position them to better compete with newer Web-based classified ad sites that often give away postings for free.

It would also open a wide range of new options for classified ads, including audio ads that a computer could read to a user and virtual home tours to accompany real estate ads. The standards committee will leave those decisions to individual publishers. "We've got to build a foundation little by little," Wolferman said.

Once the standards are established, newspapers will gravitate toward them as the advertising market, particularly on the Web, moves toward bigger integrated databases of ads from many sources. Even if online competitors and technology companies also adopt these standards, newspaper representatives at the Media Center conference felt confident that newspapers are at a natural advantage over recently established companies because of their local ties and experience in the field.

Henry K. "Buzz" Wurzer, marketing development manager for Hearst Newspapers, said newspapers need to promote and capitalize on their traditional strengths of packaging information and sharing it with a wide audience. "We're not promoting the things that our industry is really good for," he said.

"We can't fall into the trap of focusing all our efforts on online. Newspaper classifieds have the largest database, the largest viewership, in each and every verticle -- the recognized brand name, local relationships and local editorial about these verticles. It's important to promote those in a bundled way."

The NAA's standards task force will next meet August 6-7 in Denver. For more information on task force activities, contact John Iobst at iobsj@naa.org or (703) 902-1838.

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