The online classified service craigslist is contemplating restrictions on HTML formatting to combat cloaked spam links and embedded false keywords in ads — a move that could also make it harder to create slick-looking property listings using third-party applications like vFlyer and postlets.

The online classified service craigslist is contemplating restrictions on HTML formatting to combat cloaked spam links and embedded false keywords in ads — a move that could also make it harder to create slick-looking property listings using third-party applications like vFlyer and postlets.

The proposal to limit the use of HTML to a few basic tags could limit the ability of all craigslist users to create visually sophisticated ads that format information in ways that are easier to grasp, and has sparked a lively debate on the site.

"I love HTML," says one craigslist user posting on a forum created for discussion of the proposal. "I am a professional and I like to launch one or two postlets a week. They really stand out and help me sell my houses."

But many craigslist users object to ads that employ sophisticated coding, because they may contain cloaked links that unwittingly take users to commercial sites, or clutter search results with false keywords. Those fears can also lead users to "flag" posts they consider suspicious for removal — even when they are perfectly legitimate.

"The ‘community’ seems to prefer short, simple, and bland, unattractive postings anyway," said another craigslist user who favors limits on the use of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). "While I don’t agree with the belief that HTML is the spawn of the devil (I personally like the way it can enhance a posting), I think it should be prohibited, if for nothing else, to reduce ‘the community’s’ abuse of the completely arbitrary, archaic and anarchistic flagging system incorporated by (craigslist)."

Craigslist already prohibits the use of third-party posting services to post ads to the site on behalf of clients or automate the process.

But many real estate professionals use services like vFlyer and postlets to create customized craigslist ads. The services format listing data into ads that can contain multiple pictures, generating HTML code that is cut-and-pasted to craigslist by the user. Although clients of such services must manually create their craigslist ads and respond to confirmation e-mails from the site, vFlyer and postlets simplify the process of making visually appealing ads.

Craigslist is considering banning all but a set of basic HTML tags, which would allow users to only do simple text formatting, such as bold and italicized words, and create headers, lists and simple tables. Links to external images would also be allowed.

Postlets co-founder Asher Matsuda said the company’s listing templates make heavy use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to control fonts, colors, background, layout and other design aspects. CSS would no longer be supported under the current craigslist proposal, but postlets could still do much of what it does today using standard HTML tags, Matsuda said in an e-mail exchange with Inman News.

For postlets, the key issue — and what makes the proposed changes challenging to work with — is the restriction on allowed attributes and values within the tags, Matsuda said.

For example, while the font tag is supported, craigslist users would no longer be able to control typefaces such as Arial and Verdana, and would have only a dozen or so colors to work with, he said.

"Not the end of the world, but you’re stuck with Times New Roman and lose about 16 million color options," Matsuda said.

Table row and column tags are supported, but you can’t control their dimensions, alignment of things inside them, background colors and some other attributes, Matsuda said. CSS is critical for controlling layout and positioning, he said, adding, "This one hurts."

"I can’t think of any obvious or simple workarounds," Matsuda said. "The proposed spec, if accepted in its current form, will severely limit everyone’s ability to create a highly stylized post. We’ll just have to adapt, do our best to work with what they give us and make some lemonade."

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said that while the company’s primary impetus for establishing HTML limits is spam control, "the vast majority of craigslist users do not appreciate heavily styled postings, and that aversion needs to be considered when making judgments about how much HTML to allow."

Buckmaster said craigslist does "want to be as accommodating as possible to all our users, and will do our best to balance conflicting feedback."

Aaron Sperling, the co-founder and chief executive officer of vFlyer, said that he’s sympathetic to craigslist’s attempts to limit spammers. In the past, he said, craigslist has made smaller, incremental changes — like removing certain background tags and color combinations to prevent false keywords to be hidden by placing white text on a white background — without consulting users.

"In the past, there was no proposal process — they just made the changes, and we would (make adjustments) to make sure our content remained as high-fidelity as possible," Sperling said.

Now, Sperling said, craigslist "must really be up against the wall in fighting spam" to be suggesting such sweeping changes. "We understand some of the problems and motivations behind this; we just hope craigslist can come up with other ways to combat spam without pulling back on all these capabilities."

Sperling said one thing that separates craigslist from rival online classified sites like Kijiji is that it has fewer restrictions on HTML usage.

Whatever craigslist does, it won’t affect the listings that vFlyer syndicates to other sites like Zillow, Trulia and GoogleBase, Sperling said.

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