Airbnb’s Achilles’ Heel

As you probably know if you read this blog and follow me on Twitter, I’ve been thinking about local commerce, local search and discovery for the last 13 years. That means thinking how to create a better match between consumers and local businesses.

I’ve been following with high interest the rise of vertical peer-to-peer marketplaces like Airbnb and I finally had the chance to try the service a few weeks ago when we reserved a Florida house for a family vacation. As you probably all know, Airbnb offers homeowners the opportunity to rent their home or a room to tourists. You can build a very detailed profile and the site relies on strong identity checks and reviews to build up trust. After doing a lot of research, we finally settled on a house that seemed adequate for our family and it had 16 glowing reviews from strangers. Owner was extremely friendly in all his communications and we were looking forward to a well-deserved vacation.

When we arrived, the house was a little more rundown than expected (be aware that “rustic” has an interesting meaning in real estate) but nothing that we haven’t seen before, as we travel a lot in North America and Europe, and we’ve seen a wide variation of accomodation quality. I’ll skip the next two days for the sake of brevity but sadly, we had to take the decision to leave the house earlier than planned. We found too many ants and saw three roaches-like bugs over a 48-hours period in the house. The solution would have been to spray the house with repellent but we feared that this could be harmful to our toddler. I realize that Florida sometimes brings its lot of “domestic” insects but for the price we were paying, we felt it wasn’t worth it. This house wasn’t for us. We thought of complaining to Airbnb but, according to their policies, they require photos and we didn’t take any (it’s not the first thing you think about when you’re in a hurry to leave a place!) We lost our money and rented a hotel room for the rest of our stay. All in all, a very disappointing experience.

My local search mind started thinking feverishly (or maybe it was the hot Florida weather?): given that it’s probably a recurring problem in that house, why is it that, in 16 reviews, nobody mentioned ants and roaches?

Were they fake reviews? No, I don’t think so.

Were people ok with bugs? Maybe that’s a possibility, although I highly doubt everyone is fine with bugs (you just need to Google for the word cockroach in TripAdvisor)

And that’s when it hit me.  In Airbnb, you deal with individuals, not faceless corporations.  Tenants might be more hesitant to leave a negative comment about a fellow human being. There is a reason social media experts have been saying to corporations they need to have a human face and voice. It keeps the conversation more cordial. In addition, tenants and owners can review/rate each other, which means a negative rating from an owner can prevent you from possibly renting a house ever again on Airbnb.

Turning to eBay, the grand-daddy of marketplaces, I also realized that reviews from strangers in a peer-to-peer marketplace eventually become meaningless. You can read many complaints about that on the web. In a review site, what’s often missing is a like-mindedness filter, to let you know if people have the same taste as you. Yelp has that same problem.

I also realized that Airbnb is going after a vertical (hotels) that is more complex emotionally than many local purchases:

  • Vacation = positive moment in life. You mess up my vacation, I’m mad.
  • Dollar amount is bigger. I make a bad choice, I’m mad.

In addition, the hotel ecosystem comes with basic standard:

  • You know brands stand for something, a level of quality. Sheraton, Hilton, Best Western.
  • There is also a standard 5-star system, where in effect you can opt-in to lower quality (and lower prices) with full knowledge.

It also got me thinking about trust and social media. Ken Larson on Quora says:

“We really do not know who to really trust. To an extraordinary degree the age in which we live is requiring us to redefine trust and the degree to which communication and expectation contribute to it. Consider simpler times a few years past (say 50). Trust was necessary in many venues as a means of survival on a day to day basis. We relied on others extensively for our well being from our local store to our banker, from the policeman to the politician. And we knew them all better, we could reach out and touch them and we were not viewing them in sound bites and web sites, nor were we being bombarded with multiple forms of input to digest about them.”

Through all these reflections, I came up with an equation for trust. To have trust in an ecosystem, you need:

  • A strong brand (can be an umbrella brand or an individual brand)
  • Real identities (everyone uses real names and pictures)
  • Detailed Descriptions
  • Solid knowledge about local prices (being able to compare prices for same level of quality)
  • Reviews/recommendations
  • Social graph (friends or friends of friends have bought the product/service)
  • Detailed enforced standards via a certification program

Looking at this list, Airbnb is executing perfectly on almost all criteria except for one: standards. Airbnb has “host obligations” but I don’t think anyone is really enforcing those. Did you know BestWestern has a 30-page standards book you need to respect if you want to be a franchisee? Without solid standards and a certification program, I won’t be going back to Airbnb. They currently have a great brand, but they’re putting that brand at risk every day.

Update 1: less than 30 minutes after I posted this online, I was contacted by Airbnb to discuss my case.

Update 2: because we did not follow the “procedure” (contact the owner and/or Airbnb to try to solve the issue AND capture proof of our allegations), Airbnb could only offer us a $100 credit. Given that we lost about $600 and that we’re probably not going to use Airbnb again, that obviously wasn’t satisfactory.

 

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The Benefits of the Real-Time Web for Consumers and SMBs

I moderated a panel yesterday at the Local Social Summit on the real-time Web and its impacts on the Local/Social space. Details here.

Don’t have much time to write a long post but one of the key insights that came out of the panel was:

Main benefit of the real-time Web for consumers: convenience. You get your needs/wants answered in quasi real-time, you live a more efficient life, etc.

Main benefit of the real-time Web for businesses: differentiation. It’s difficult for businesses to adapt to the demand of the real-time Web but those that will might be able to build a strong business on that differentiating factor.

Twitter and the Local Ecosystem

I recently shared with a potential Needium partner the volume of local tweets we’re indexing daily in major (and some smaller) North American cities.

US/Canada:
Atlanta, GA: 709,427
Austin, TX: 116,756
Calgary, AB: 60,603
Cary, NC: 153,315
Charlotte, NC: 171,001
Chicago, IL: 712,399
Cincinnati, OH: 110,975
Columbus, OH: 221,920
Commack, NY: 116,145
Creve Coeur, MO, 43,829
Denver, CO: 172,762
Des Moines, IA: 28,702
Fort Lauderdale, FL : 118,670
Indianapolis, IN: 224,871
Laguna Beach, CA: 58,186
Long Beach, CA: 113,404
Los Angeles, CA: 1,126,143
Miami, FL: 509,411
New York (Metro): 2,746,757
Ontario, CA: 59,705
Phoenix, AZ: 230,260
Redondo, CA: 66,490
San Bernardino, CA: 36,799
San Francisco, CA: 354,707
St. Louis, MO: 255,415
Tampa, FL: 125,341
Toronto, ON: 546,470
Vancouver, BC: 173,340
Washington DC: 551,126
West Palm Beach, FL: 31,665

Europe:
London, UK (Central): 60,128 (more than 1M tweets per day when you index the greater London metro area)
Paris, France: 346,197

Remember: these are tweets PER DAY per city. As you can see, those numbers are quite impressive and we’re just starting to scratch the surface in terms of implicit geo-location. We’re adding new geo-clues like neighborhood names, points of interest, foursquare check-ins, etc. to help us increase that volume. And we’re slowly getting to a point where our community managers know what’s going in specific cities and neighborhoods.

As I wrote earlier this year, “With more and more people joining the service, Twitter will discover that its real utility is at the local level. Twitter will become the often-wished for democratic and commercial local space we’ve been expecting since the beginning of the Web. Citizens/consumers, merchants, politicians, and news sources/journalists becoming an intrinsic part of the same communication and relational system.” That’s even truer today as more people are joining Twitter (100M montly active users at last count), people use it more (250M tweets a day) and they geo-localize themselves more.

And yesterday, I was happy to see that people are starting to notice. Read what smart VC Dev Khare wrote yesterday:

Dev is probably using crude tools (maybe Twitter Search?) to retrieve the info and he’s starting to see “local” value. Imagine when we’ll be able to surface that information in a much more substantial way!

The same day, Mark Suster (a VC who invested in Twitter) wrote “We Have Only Scratched the Surface of the True Value of Twitter. Here’s What You’re Missing“.  He starts by explaining that there’s more to Twitter than “what am I eating for lunch?”. As my readers know, I wrote a whole presentation on “why you should care what @joepublic had for lunch” but that’s another story…

Mark goes on to talk about Identity, Object Communications, Predictive Data, and Augmented Data. A couple of quotes stood out for me:

“I believe that Twitter is becoming the most interesting and predictive dataset in the world and that every large company (and many small ones) will consume the Twitter stream in order to gain insights, determine actions to take and gain competitive advantage.”

“The future of data interpretations will be augmented. We will look at both the steam and the “meta stream.” We will want to augment with: location, demographics, affiliations, authority by subject area, gender, topical interests and a whole lot more.”

That’s it. That’s what makes Twitter such a powerful communication tool and even though, as the Wall Street Journal writes this morning “Web companies often upend industries but they can labor for years to fully make money on their revolutions”, social networking revenue is growing (eMarketer predicts this morning that “Worldwide social network ad revenues will surpass $8 billion in 2012 and approach $10 billion by 2013”) and will rocket past many online ad categories. As for Twitter, I believe they will find monetization success through local advertising. It’s too good an opportunity to pass.

The Right Place At The Right Time: My Panel at the Local Social Summit

I will be moderating a panel on day one of the next Local Social Summit happening in London on November 9 and 10 (it’s a two-day event this year). The panel is titled The Right Place At The Right Time: How The Real-Time Web Influences The “local” World.

Its description: The rise of the real-time Web is well documented.Propelled by both the social networking revolution and mobile device ubiquitousness, we’re seeing the birth of new user services and business opportunities. In this panel,  we will explore the time element in the local/social Web and will try to discover what kind of content works well in real-time, what are the benefits for consumers and what kind of business models can be deployed to leverage the
“time” dimension.

My panelists:

People that have been reading this blog and following my Twitter feed know that I’ve been interested in the real-time (sometimes called the Alive Web)and the temporal Web for a few years now.

On day two, I’m also on a panel titled Can Social Media Be Outsourced? headed by Jonathan Ewert from Codero. I’m looking forward to that discussion as well!

It should be an excellent conference with speakers from Yelp, Foursquare, European Directories, Decarta, Mueller-Medien, the BBC, in addition to Greg Sterling, Dennis Yu and Perry Evans.

The organizers have provided me with a 20% discount to my readers but I hear there are less than 20 tickets left. So, hurry up if you want to join us. I will be in London the whole week. If you want to meet, ping me at seb AT needium.com.

Today’s Strategic Imperatives For Directory Publishers

Flick picture by disoculated

Yesterday, I gave an interview to the Globe & Mail about Canada’s Yellow Media / Yellow Pages Group, the incumbent directory publisher and my former employer (I worked there from 1999 to 2007). Even with the challenges they’re facing, I’m still a fan of the company (and of the industry in general) but the interview gave me the opportunity to put in writing what I think are the core strategic imperatives today for any directory publisher, not just Yellow Media. The list won’t surprise anyone in the industry but it’s always good to remind ourselves what they are.

  1. Change the culture. “Internet culture” must truly permeate every aspect of the organization. Concepts like speed of execution, innovation, quick iterations, coopetition, risk-taking, failing fast must become second nature (other people on Twitter & Google+ suggested “internet culture” also meant constant learning, openness, willingness to help each other out, adaptability to constant change, sharing, crowdsourcing, diversity, immediacy, learning, and expectation of access)
  2. The sales force. I believe the sales force is now the major asset of all directory publishers and this sales force needs to be able to sell print directory products as well as a variety of online products including third-party ones like Google AdWords or Facebook advertising. This means recruiting and training are critical success factors. I use to believe the brand was a major asset but not anymore.
  3. Reinvent the Print. I still believe print business directories have legs and they won’t die tomorrow (and by the way, stop it with “Yellow Pages are dead” please, nothing ever dies, it just becomes niche). Even I still use the neighborhood book once in a while. But the book needs to be reinvented to become more locally relevant, more about the consumer. As Francis Barker (SVP at Dex Media at the time) said in 2004 at a BIA/Kelsey conference, print books design should be influenced by online local search patterns/usage. I’ll add that they now should be influenced by mobile local search/discovery apps. On a related note, book distribution in apartment and office building should be improved to avoid the PR disaster pictures like this.
  4. Continue investing in the Web. Beef up your dev and product management team, invest in R&D, try things. Facebook has shown that you can continue innovating even when you have huge consumer usage and ad revenues.
  5. Focus on mobile.  The Web is extremely fragmented and some players like Google and Facebook have managed to capture gigantic market shares. There’s probably a bigger opportunity to support the franchise by focusing on mobile and launching various vertical apps. Directory publishers need to invest and build up their mobile team and technology.
  6. Get serious about social media. I’m obviously biased because of the work I’m doing on Needium, but the time for experiments in social media is over. This is serious business now both from a consumer and an advertiser point of view.

Am I forgetting anything?

“Google+ is all about protecting its search business” – Robert Scoble

Commenting on a recent Google+ story on Techcrunch, Robert Scoble wrote : “I believe Google+ is all about protecting its search business. It is scared that Facebook is going to become a search engine. It already sort of is. A lot of people are moving behaviors over to Facebook that they used to do in search. Instead of Googling “sushi san francisco” we’ll just ask our friends “hey, where’s the best sushi in San Francisco.”

What it means: Looking at this through the filter of the consumer purchase decision process (see below), this is extremely significant. By expressing needs/problems in social media and having people/companies come to them with solutions, consumers bypass “search” and go straight to purchase. This is a serious threat to companies like Google who have built a huge ad business based on search.

Facebook Phases Out “Places” but Adds Location to Status Updates and Other Shared Items

Facebook announced yesterday that they “are phasing out the mobile-only Places feature“, a check-in service that was introduced one year ago, and replacing it with the ability to add location to status updates, photos or wall posts.  As the announcement says:  ” Now you can add location to anything. Lots of people use Facebook to talk about where they are, have been or want to go. Now you can add location from anywhere, regardless of what device you are using, or whether it is a status update, photo or Wall post.” As Techcrunch adds, “Starting this week, you’ll be able to easily associate location with any update, even if you’re nowhere near the location.”

Another big change, again explained by Techcrunch: “Another location-related change: Facebook now prompts users to include a city-level location tag with all of their updates (for example, if I wrote this from New York City, it would prompt me to include that with a status update). You can disable this if you aren’t interested, but city-level location probably won’t present a huge privacy issue for most people.”

What it means:  A couple of thoughts: it completely makes sense that Facebook now enables location data to be attached to a shared message. Twitter does the same. Location is a data payload of a status update the same way a URL accompanies one. I also like the idea that most status updates on Facebook will now be geo-tagged at the city level. A huge amount of locally-relevant content will therefore be available for consumption by users but also by Facebook API developers.

As for the disappearance of the check-in, two prevalent thoughts are expressed by experts and pundits.  Most people agree that it either means Foursquare has won or that check-ins are useless. I think the answer is probably in-between. On a side note, this report (.pdf) published by White Horse and titled “Lost in Geolocation: Why Consumers Haven’t Bought It and How Marketers Can Fix It” generated four key findings:

  1. Location-based services have not yet reached the tipping point.
  2. The chief barriers today are a lack of clear benefit and privacy fears.
  3. Users are mostly young, active contributors to social networks.
  4. Marketers will need to create and test new geolocation experiences that are not generic but relevant to a particular brand and audience.

From a volume point of view, Facebook had managed to capture a solid number of check-ins vs. Foursquare. I’m a Facebook Places Editor which allows me to quickly see cumulative check-ins for some places. In Montreal, for example,

  • Helm (bar/brewery) has 341 check-ins on Facebook and 502 on Foursquare.
  • Hotel Le Crystal has 756 check-ins on Facebook and 351 on Foursquare
  • Centre des Sciences de Montreal (Science Museum) has 851 check-ins on Facebook and 715 check-ins on Foursquare
  • Brit & Chips (restaurant) has 342 check-ins on Facebook and 439 on Foursquare

Obviously, the sheer size of Facebook usage in Canada makes those numbers quite small (it probably should be 100 times more to be proportionate with Foursquare’s traffic) , but still people were doing the check-ins. Since I acquired my latest smart phone (a Samsung Galaxy S2), I’ve been finding myself doing more check-ins on Facebook than on Foursquare, probably because the friends I want to share my location with are already on Facebook. I’m going to make a prediction: expect the check-in to come back in one form or another on Facebook in the near future.

From a Needium point of view, we’ve found check-ins to be an excellent way to prove that a conversation leads to a conversion/sale/visit. So, we definitely like check-ins as a concept!

One last thought: the fact that Facebook wants you to add locations about “where they are, have been or want to go” reminds me of the past, present, and future concept I discussed in my temporal Web presentation. I wonder if they will start exploring this concept further?