'Reputational' Media—Where Yelp Has an Edge Over AirBnB, VRBO, etc.

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Other people's travel problems are not interesting. Same with other people's weather, and traffic jams you're not in. Therefore -- believe it or not! -- I try to mention travel issues only if I think there is some larger point they illustrate, admittedly often about the TSA. I'm not going to write about My Noisy Hotel Room, or The Time I Waited for Days to Get My Luggage, because everyone has such tales.

But here is a recent episode I did find intriguing. It bears on the honesty and built-in bias of some popular online ratings sites. Short version of the story:

- My wife and I knew for months that we would be coming to LA for a week at Christmas time, to see relatives and friends. Rather than just stay in a hotel, we thought we should try something from the burgeoning small-B-and-B category. After poring through online listings and comparing reviews, my wife came up with what looked like a funkily nice one. It was called PAH, the Palisades Art House, in Pacific Palisades, and the reviews were uniformly positive, for instance from AirBnB and VRBO [Vacation Rentals By Owner]. We made the reservation for Dec 23-30; wired the nonrefundable 50% deposit; and in mid November got a confirmation note from the German owner-manager saying "All is set" and that he was looking forward to seeing us.

- When we arrived, at 10pm West Coast time on Dec 23, that same manager looked at us in puzzlement. To jump to the end of the story: he had "forgotten" or "gotten mixed up" about our booking, had sold the room to someone else, and had no space whatsoever for the next week when we were supposed to be there.

- This was inconvenient, especially late on Friday night of a holiday weekend after 12 hours of travel from the East Coast; but worse things happen every day. We called friends and relatives and have ended up staying in their houses, which has been fun. We made the manager give us our deposit back on the spot.

VRBO.pngHere is where it got interesting. Because this kind of incident would have been relevant to us when we were comparing listings, the next day I did a short "here is what happened to us, be careful" review-note on Yelp and on the same sites where we had learned about the property -- VRBO, VacationRentals, and HomeAway. I couldn't post anything at AirBnB, because it accepts reviews only after sending email to customers at the end of their stay -- and our stay never began. I didn't want to complain to the world at large, which wouldn't care, but rather to supply information only for people who were considering this exact property. The Yelp one went up in real time. From the other three I received a "your review is under consideration" note.

A few days later, I received messages from VRBO, VacationRentals, and HomeAway (which turn out to be three different branches of the same operation, based in Austin), all saying that the review didn't meet their standards and would not be posted. Why? Because they accepted reviews only from people who had stayed at the property; and since we hadn't stayed there, we couldn't comment on the place.

!!!  The fact that we couldn't stay there was the point of the review. So I wrote back to the VRBO [etc] service division saying: My problem was that we couldn't stay at the site after we had a confirmed reservation to do so. Isn't this relevant information for future travelers?

Someone from the VRBO staff wrote back, with this [patently false] reply, emphasis added:

 Guests can only leave a review if they stayed at the property. Since reviews are meant to be about the property, and not the owner, if you did not stay there you cannot submit a review. We understand that dealings with the owner are an important factor in renting a vacation rental. Since the property is what is advertised on our site, reviews need to be about the physical property.

PAHReview.pngThis is patently false because half the review-content on this property at VRBO's site is about the owner/manager, the international-artsy ambiance he creates, the way he treats the guests, etc. See for yourself (and at right). His picture and hostly philosophy are featured in the listing. In case you're interested, here is the philosophy: "'Welcome to the PAH where art and life are one! The Germans just say: 'Lebenskunst' (it means the art of life)." I have nothing against this guy, even though he screwed up our situation, and am sure we would have enjoyed staying there. We later got a note from him offering us a big discount if we came back some other time. But if I were shopping for a rental, I'd want to know that at least once he had made this big a mistake. At a minimum, it would have suggested that we should call ahead of arrival time to double check that things were OK.

This is info that VRBO / HomeAway / VacationRentals are aware of and deliberately choose not to share with prospective travelers -- and that AirBnB makes impossible for someone with a problem like ours to post. Let me say this again: the VRBO group knows of a real management problem at a site, and they deliberately choose not to share it -- while freely sharing the 5-star "great host!" ratings. For all I know, this could have happened before, and VRBO etc might have suppressed previous reports of the same problem. (Alex the manager did tell us that night "I've been doing this for a year and a half, and this has never happened to me before," fwiw.)

I recognize that the wide-open nature of Yelp can lead to a bias in favor of whiners, as Derek Brown argued on our site recently. But in this case, whose bias do you prefer? That of Yelp, which opens the microphone to everyone and gets a lot of excessively critical commentary? Or that of a family of sites that knowingly withhold information that might change the uniformly 5-star rating of one of their clients but would also inform their ostensible customers, the traveling public? I will look at reputational media with a cannier eye.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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