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.



In Europe Next Week

I will be in Europe next week for business, certainly in France, in Germany and in Italy and possibly in the UK. I’m still firming up meetings and if you’d like to meet while I’m there, send me an e-mail at sprovencher AT

I will also be back in Europe, beginning of November, as I will be speaking at the first Local Social Summit in London. The event is happening on November 3rd at the [praized subtype=”small” pid=”5af504ca5d02026b527046262985199a” type=”badge” dynamic=”true”] and tickets are still available. If we don’t have the chance to meet next week, we can also schedule something that first week of November as I will probably be traveling to other countries before or after the event.

Rich Barton (Zillow): “Transparency of Information is Power”

On the second day of the Kelsey Drilling Down 2008 Conference, we heard from Rich Barton, Chairman and CEO, Zillow. He exposed us to his thesis that lead to the various projects he’s been involved in in the last 10 years. Before founding Zillow, Barton founded Expedia when he was at Microsoft. His basic thesis is that transparency of information is power. This leads to a consumer revolution in various verticals, releasing things that were locked-up, especially around big financial decisions. He mentioned stockbroking, travel and real estate as three verticals that were forever altered by the arrival of the Web. He also mentioned three other companies he’s involved with in the following verticals: Legal (, Healthcare (, and Employment (

Rich Barton Zillow CEO


He finished his presentation with a “Power to the people” manifesto that’s very telling in this user-generated content age:

  • Consumer crave information and power
  • If it can be known, it will be known by all (the web causes transparency)
  • If it can be rated, it will be rated
  • If it can be free, it will be free
  • Professionals who are active players in the new vertical marketplaces win
  • There can be no vertical marketplace without community
  • The digital media model rules (local is giant)

Highlights from Kelsey’s Drilling Down 2008: The Kelsey Team Intro and the Strategy

Very interesting first half-day yesterday at the Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down on Local ’08. The theme of the conference is “Marketplaces”. It regroups products such as classifieds, auctions and vertical sites. Here are highlights from the first two sessions:

As an introduction, the Kelsey Group’s team provided us with some background information on “Marketplaces”. Neal Polachek first described the local end game as “better search, discovery, and engagement”. He even quoted the Cluetrain Manifesto’s “Markets are conversation”. He also talked about their latest global ad revenue forecast for 2007-2012, stating that the biggest category winner would be Internet and the biggest loser would be newspapers. As I wrote last week, the Kelsey group believes that Verticals will capture a large chunk of online advertising by 2012. Matt Booth then talked about three specific verticals (travel, automotive, home services) that have had a tremendous impact on offline/online business and media spending. For example, Matt showed two juxtaposed graphs showing the decline of newspapers’ automotive revenues vs.’s revenue increase. Peter Krasilovsky finished the intro by stating that it’s now time to “uncouple” print and online media bundles. As print revenues decline, you need to have online-only ad products to compensate. Peter added that you also want to “verticalize” your offer to expand your revenues.

Kelsey Drilling Down 08 Neal Polachek

The second session “Remaking the Los Angeles Times (Online)” starred Rob Barrett, Senior VP of Interactive Media, GM, He started by mentioning that most of what he’s currently working on is not very visible online now. He spent the first couple of years at the LA Times refocusing the online business. His main focus has been to build the display ad business (as opposed to classifieds). It’s going to generate $25M in revenues this year. Barrett says it’s now “time to finally break the newspaper paradigm online”. The LA Times’ online strategy needs to be local as opposed to national as it will allow them to differentiate their offer versus other “national” newspapers like the New York Times. They’ve realized that local users are key to online revenues as they generate more monthly page views and twice the display revenue per page views. Their product approach is “we want to own Los Angeles”, i.e. be integral to life of Angelinos, be the source of news and information about Los Angeles to the world and be an information retailer by creating, aggregating and curating LA content.

Los Angeles Times - News from Los Angeles, California and the World

The web site is slowly transforming itself into a hyperlocal social network. All content pieces are going to be tagged and indexed by category and geography. By targeting on demographics and on geo, the LA Times is hoping to raise their average CPMs and improve ad effectiveness. They are creating the best targeting machine for the LA DNA. Barrett then showed us pilots of various new vertical sections that are very promising:

Southwest Airlines Uses YouTube to Reply to YouTube Attack

Great use of social media (YouTube in this case) to reply in context to a newscast (posted on YouTube as well) that portrayed Southwest Airlines as bad guys in a possible case of unruly passenger behavior.

too pretty to fly Southwest Airlines

Best quote from one of the passengers in the newscast: “I think they were just discriminating against us because we were young decent-looking girls. I mean, nobody else really on the plane looked like us except us”. (

Southwest Airlines Response to Unruly Passenger Behavior

Best quote from SouthWest’s spokesperson (in the reply): “I just want to assure you that we welcome pretty people on-board our flights, we just ask that you leave your bad behavior at home”. (

You can’t invent these things!

(via Stuart Macdonald’s Twitter feed)

Nokia Launches “Walking Directions” for Series 60 and 40 Phones

Nokia announced this morning at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the launch of their Maps 2.0 service, for its Series 60 and 40 phones. According to the BBC News Web site,

Nokia has launched navigation tools designed to make the paper street map obsolete for pedestrians. The firm’s next generation of digital maps gives real-time walking directions on the mobile phone screen, just like sat-nav systems which guide drivers. “Nokia is taking navigation services out of the car so it can always be with you,” said Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, president and CEO of the firm. “Struggling with oversized paper maps will become a thing of the past.”

Nokia 6210 Navigator Maps 2.0Nokia_6210_Navigator

What it means: another local application attached to mobile devices. This one is squarely competing against any mapping web site or any site that relies heavily on mapping as a main attraction. It could also be a threat to paper travel guides (see also Travel Guides Still Selling Well, Saved by Portability) (pictures by Nokia)

Are Those Reviews Coming From a Trusted Source?

Today’s New York Times has an article on hotel and restaurant reviews. They mostly talk about TripAdvisor and IgoUgo (which I had never heard of until today) and compare them to Zagat. Most of the information in there has been thoroughly discussed before (user reviews vs. editor reviews, moderated vs. un-moderated comments) but one quote from Tim Zagat (Zagat’s co-founder) really stood out for me. Talking about consumer reviews, he said:

“Some Internet companies are running into the problem that anybody can throw up things on the wall, and after a while there are just too many people doing it.”

TripAdvisor hotel Arts Review Barcelona

What it means: Tim Zagat is onto something. He doesn’t express it that way but it’s all about reviews from “trusted sources”. A trusted source could be, for example, a pro reviewer/critic (aggregated in sites like, a friend or someone from an affinity group (or trusted community). Some of the travel and review sites out there suffer from a lack of “trusted sources” and it’s the reason why we often feel like there’s too much information to process when we see hundreds of reviews for a hotel or restaurant. Why would I trust travelingmom526 or baroudeur2004? If they’re not direct contacts, how do I know if they have the same taste as me?

Travel Guides Still Selling Well, Saved by Portability

This article from the New York Times talks about efforts being made by the travel guide industry to avoid being disrupted by the Internet.

“We want to be in a position where, if the business suddenly collapses in five years, we have a plan — unlike the music industry,” said Martin Dunford, publishing director of Rough Guides, which is part of the Penguin division of the media company Pearson, based in London.

So far, the digital media revolution has been much less turbulent for guidebook publishers than for record companies, which are fighting rampant online copying. Sales of travel guides, while flat in some traditionally stalwart markets like Britain, have been growing strongly in developing countries and in the United States (…).

Travel publishers sold 14.8 million books in the United States last year, up 11 percent from two years ago, according to Nielsen BookScan. Still, guidebook companies may have missed an opportunity on the Internet.

Travel Guide books

(Flickr photo by Malias)

What it means: Portability, brand and content are this industry’s key success factors. I think they’ve been saved from disruption so far because of the combo of crappy mobile devices, bad wireless access and half-baked applications. When you travel, it’s still much easier to carry your print guide book with you than try to access online sites and applications. The industry is doing interesting stuff right now but, if I was running their online strategy, I would be putting a lot more energy behind social travel mobile applications. This is where the industry will be disrupted, when mobile comes of age (check out Dopplr for a glimpse at the future).

By the way, the following excerpts/quotes from the article could have been written about the directory industry (or the newspaper industry):

  • “While many travel publishers have had Web sites for a long time, some of them, along with booksellers, initially worried about cannibalizing sales of guidebooks”
  • “Digital business still generates relatively little revenue for guidebook publishers — less than 5 percent of sales at Penguin’s travel division, for example, according to executives there.”
  • “There’s been a lot of experimentation, but maybe not enough revenue coming back from digital,”
  • “The travel guide business, the good old-fashioned paper book, is still a strong and healthy business,” Ms. Slatyer said. “And we think it will be for some time.”

Farecast Cracks the Hotel Reservation “Black Box”

(via TechCrunch)

Seattle-based Farecast, a startup that launched about 18 months ago to focus on predicting flight prices and guaranteeing users against increases, just expanded to help people find deals on hotel rooms as well.

The hotels area of the site helps users see prices based on a number of travel search engines (Orbitz, CheapTickets and ReserveTravel). All the results are shown on a map along with price and other basic information.

But the service also looks at each of the hotels to let you know if it’s priced attractively or not. For most hotels, the star rating isn’t enough to tell if the price is too high or low v. local competition. Over the long run market forces even the playing field, but a traveler unfamiliar with a specific hotel can (and often is) overcharged occasionally. Farecast will help you understand if you are getting a deal or not on that specific hotel.

What it means: I love these services that crack open what I call “black-box” industries and give the power back to the users. Farecast does it for flights and hotels. Zillow does it for real estate. I can think of at least a dozen other industries that could be disrupted that way.