More on Yelp, Airbnb, and VRBO, Including Why I Was Naive

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After my Christmas Eve tale of "no room at the inn seaside B&B," these followups:

1) I realize that I was naive even to have thought that "listing" sites would run critical reviews. As explained in a long reader message after the jump, the three linked sites VRBO [Vacation Rentals by Owner], HomeAway, and VacationRentals make their money via listing-fees from owners. It's more important for VRBO to keep those customers happy than to convince a traveler like me that the reviews are accurate and, when needed, cautionary.

Interesting test: After a reader suggested that VRBO runs only five-star reviews, with some four-star "critiques" thrown in for plausibility, I did a random sampling. I checked out 10 listings in areas I knew -- in DC, Berkeley, Seattle, etc. In every case, the reviews were mostly five-star with a few fours. Didn't see any of the 3-, 2-, 1- or zero-star ratings you would expect in real life. Not a scientific survey but interesting.

2) In response to some queries: no, I am not trying to "get" the B&B guy who "forgot" our paid-for-and-confirmed week's reservation. He just made a mistake, and although he also forgot to apologize as he sent us back out into the night, he did send an "I'm sorry" note the next day, with offer of a discount on a (highly hypothetical) future stay. But I didn't know how to tell the story of listing services that refuse to give details about real problems without giving details about our problem. On balance he and his "art house" may be better known now -- and I bet he doesn't forget the next people who make bookings there.

3) The marketing director of Airbnb, Christopher Lukezic, writes in to explain his company's policies. (For the record, no one from the VRBO team replied.)

I just wanted to flag a few corrections for you in your recent piece re: Airbnb and VRBO. We have purposely designed our product and service in a way that helps to eliminate problems like you recently faced.

As you correctly point out, we only allow transaction based reviews. This eliminates the problem that many social review sites have with over inflated good reviews that can be left by anyone. Only people who have actually stayed in a place can leave a review.

That said, when a host cancels on a guest at the last minute, we automatically leave a review on the hosts profile that states that the host cancelled the reservation. This informs all potential future guests of the risk that the host might cancel on them. Also, we punish hosts that do this by pushing them further down in the search rankings, and if it happens more than twice we even suspend their accounts until they speak to an account manager and agree to improve their behavior.

Finally, in the event that something like this happens, Airbnb has 24/7 customer support that will take care of finding you and equal or better place to stay. The way we handle transactions even assures that this process is seamless and your money is always protected.

The success of Airbnb is through transparency and it does us no good to hide any reviews, good or bad, as we are trying to ensure a good experience first and foremost! ...I hope that this clarifies how Airbnb reviews work and how we are very different from VRBO.

Noted.

4) Reader David Ryan, who has current experience in the hospitality industry, writes about positive-v-negative reviews, and "the eBay problem":

AirBnB, VRBO, etc are listing services. The lister (hotel, B&B, rental owner, etc) is their customer.

Conversely, businesses can be listed on Yelp with or without the business owner's permission. The advertisers on Yelp are Yelp's customers.

In both cases, the guest/would-be reviewer is *not* these business's customer.

As merchants we use a sister-site of VRBO, Yelp, Trip Advisor, and of course, Amazon. I seem to recall both AirBandB and VRBO are now, or were going to offer the opportunity for hosts to rate guest also.

This causes what I call the "eBay problem"

The eBay problem is the phenomena of retaliatory negative ratings. Because eBay can't possibly police this, it *massively* disinscentivises giving negative ratings for fear of receiving a retaliatory negative rating; which intern skews overall ratings to the positive side, and obscures bad actors.

As a buyer, the solution is to only do business with seller that have a very high number of positive ratings, and avoid (what might be good deals from) sellers without sufficient histories.

Not surprisingly, this, and the overall quest for surety, has changed eBay's business model. For several years now the "giant yard sale" aspect of their business has been a second runner to providing online presence and transaction services to small and medium-sized businesses (a lot of these business do their sourcing in China, BTW). The merchant has the catagory and sourcing expertise, and eBay provides the online infrastructure. These sorts of venders and the transactions they spawn require orders of magnitude less dispute resolution, and general baby-sitting and also do vastly more business. In short, they are better customers than people using eBay to sell of the contents of their garages. (A few years ago there was a really good FORTUNE mag article about the normalization of eBay's business, but damned if I can find it.)

Your experience with VRBO's review policy and subsequent "customer support" reminds me of something I read by a very astute media and technology theorist who was featured on TheAtlantic.com [a wry reference to Ryan's own posting, under the name Tony Comstock] earlier this year:
"commercial terms of service for acceptable sexual content on private
platforms are practically forced to evolve to be vague and
community-based. But unlike the legal standard; these commercial
standards will be enforced with extreme prejudice and little or no
recourse for appeal."

The long and the short is that businesses and customers both need surety. That knowing that your room is going to be waiting for you on the day you booked, but also knowing that your hard-won/guarded reputation isn't going to be smeared either. I think eBay (or Amazon
for that matter) have  already gone through the sort of evolution that is inevitable for AirBandB, et al.
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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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