Back in October 2010, I wrote a post here about how Backpage would benefit from the work by attorney generals around the country who eliminated Backpage’s biggest competitor, Craiglist, from the adult classifieds advertising business.
According to traffic reporting service Compete.com, Backpage was averaging around 2.3 million unique visitors/month to their site before Craigslist was bullied out of the adult classifieds business. In the first month without CL as a competitor, Backpage gained around half a million new visitors:
Checking back in with Backpage today, we can see that Backpage’s traffic has continued to increase. Since 2010, Backpage’s unique visitors have increased 70% to 3.9 million/month:
Advanced Interactive Media Group attempted to quantify how much money was in play in adult services ads back in 2010 and came up with the following figures:
Backpage.com’s revenue from online prostitution ads in 23 U.S. cities increased 15.3 percent to at least $1,671,685 in September compared with August, according to research conducted by the Advanced Interactive Media Group in Altamonte Springs. Fla. That’s an annual rate of just over $20 million.
Assuming the revenue correlates with unique visitors (it wouldn’t necessarily, since it correlates with ads rather than how many people look at the ads), Backpage might be generating an additional million dollars per month thanks to attorney generals taking Craigslist out of the adult classifieds business.
For a local perspective here is how traffic has grown over the past year on the Minneapolis portion of Backpage:
Back before Craigslist caved to pressure from Attorney Generals around the country, CraigsList had implemented a manual screening process for every ad published to their erotic services categories. They also worked with law enforcement to help identify people involved in sex trafficking. Beyond that, law enforcement across the country have effectively patrolled Craigslist to solve crimes ranging from prostitution to bike thefts. Here’s a sample of headlines illustrating this:
At this point, it seems clear to me that politicians have learned nothing from shutting down Craigslist – a site that monitored itself and cooperated with law enforcement to help solve crimes. History is repeating itself two years later with Backpage.com. Personally, if I had to choose a partner for policing prostitution online, I’d rather have Craigslist on my side than fight Backpage, but I doubt we’ll see history rolled back anytime soon.
Backpage does appear to be screening posts to their site (at least within the USA). For example, a search for “BBBJ Young” (look it up if you’re curious) doesn’t return ads for USA cities, but does for Canadian ones:
Over time, we’ll likely see Backpage fold, leading to the next round of adult classifieds whack-a-mole. Some early contenders can be found by looking at the other sites visited by those who visit backpage.com on Google Trends:
These sites cost nearly nothing to operate, and don’t necessarily need to be profitable to operate (although the market shows that there is a $20-30 million/yr business in this type of classified advertising). They also don’t need to be operated from within the United States or by an American company, which means that it may become tougher and tougher to pressure the beneficiaries of Backpage’s demise into shutting down. Look at The Pirate Bay for an example of this.
If the goal is to prevent sex trafficking, surely there are better approaches than playing a game of whack-a-mole where business could be driven to jurisdictions where local governments have no influence. More on that tomorrow.