Airbnb's Room for Improvement

Michael J. Ross

This article was published by Nomadtopia Collective, on their website, 2021-05-01, as a feature article.

Since 2008, the San Francisco-based company Airbnb has made it possible for everyday people to rent out their spare bedrooms and other personal accommodations to travelers. By providing this platform for connecting hosts with guests, Airbnb allows hosts to earn money from otherwise unused space in their properties, and allows guests to avoid paying for traditionally expensive hotel rooms. Despite net income losses in the billions of dollars (as of this writing), Airbnb has significantly disrupted the hospitality industry and is considered the primary player in the homestay market. The company has millions of customers, offices in countries around the world, and its website and app support more than 60 foreign languages.

As a digital nomad who has spent more than four years living almost continuously in Airbnb rentals located in 17 cities in eight countries, I can personally attest to the many advantages of this service versus hotel rooms and other legacy accommodations: the lower overall cost (especially for multi-week and multi-month stays), a much greater choice of locations within each city, the larger bedrooms, the use of a fully stocked kitchen, the availability of laundry facilities, and the priceless relationships and insight gained by living with locals in their hometowns and with other international travelers.

However, like all commercial services, Airbnb has its strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, despite my overall positive assessment of the service, there are three ways in which the company could greatly improve its offering.

Guest Arrival Verification

Imagine you have endured a day (or two!) of sleepless travel on multiple airplanes and through multiple airports, to arrive in a foreign country where you do not speak the primary local language. Terribly tired and hungry, you desperately want to take a hot shower and collapse onto a comfortable bed. But instead, you are standing alone on a sidewalk, clutching your luggage, on a noisy street, repeatedly banging on a locked door, wondering why your Airbnb host is not readily available as they had promised to be. It can be awfully stressful, made much worse if the SIM card you bought at the airport is not allowing you to call or send a message to your host, notifying them of your arrival at their house or apartment building.

Three times I have arrived at an Airbnb rental and neither the host nor anyone else was there to greet me and let me in. It's the worst way to start any stay. Hosts should always be onsite to receive a new guest, especially one traveling from overseas and into an area where a different language is spoken. Hosts should never assume that the guest has a smartphone with a working SIM card. (I don't bother buying SIM cards in airports anymore because they have failed me more often than not.)

The most critical part of any stay is the check-in process, especially for foreign travelers. This should be emphasized to all hosts. Airbnb should verify that a host has let a guest into the rental. It wouldn't have to be a phone call; simply let the guest click an online link to tell Airbnb that he or she has been let in. If the guest hasn't done so by a preset time, then Airbnb should follow up with the guest and the host. Moreover, Airbnb should never assume that the guest can find a nearby Internet cafe in order to get online and to request help from the host and/or Airbnb. Hosts oftentimes make that assumption, but there is no excuse for Airbnb to do so.

Airbnb should first get the basics right — especially those related to guest safety — before devoting resources to "Experiences" or other peripheral matters.

Better Search Filters

When an Airbnb customer is using the website or app to search for a place to stay, after specifying the desired location as well as the check-in and checkout dates, hundreds of available rentals could be listed if the location is in a large city. To narrow the search down to just the best candidate places, the customer can use numerous filters: cancellation flexibility; type of place (e.g., entire place, private room); minimum and maximum prices; the number of beds, bedrooms, and bathrooms; whether the host is a "superhost" (i.e., an experienced host with high ratings and fast responses to customer queries); accessibility options; various amenities (e.g., kitchen access, Wi-Fi, a clothes washer); some facilities onsite (e.g., a gym); the property type (e.g., house, apartment); unique stays (e.g., a boat, farm, barn!); house rules (pets and smoking); and host language.

These search filters are quite valuable, but they could be greatly enhanced. For instance, one of the most significant factors in the quality of my past stays, has been whether or not the interior of the house was plagued by mosquitoes. My worst experience, in Guatemala, was in the house with a traditional Latin American open design, with no protection against insects. On my arrival, a small cloud of mosquitoes hovered above the bed in my designated room. Every day was a battle against the little bloodsuckers. A similar awful experience occurred at a house in downtown Puerto Vallarta. I resorted to covering all of the windows with newspapers and tape. Airbnb should have a search filter indicating whether or not all of the windows of the given property are equipped with insect screens.

As one ages, nighttime trips to the bathroom become more frequent. Consequently, when a guest is occupying a private bedroom in a house, it is usually much better to have a private bathroom instead of a shared one, especially if other guests are present and using that bathroom. A host may designate a bathroom as "private" simply because no other guest is allowed to use it, but that does not mean that you as a guest will have any privacy when walking from your bedroom to your bathroom. In two separate rentals, my "private bathroom" could not be accessed directly from the bedroom — in fact, in Medellin, my designated bathroom was at the other end of the apartment, requiring me to walk down the hallway, past the living room, through the dining room, through the kitchen, and through the laundry room, just to urinate at night. Airbnb should improve the existing "private bathroom" filter to compel the host to specify whether or not they private bathroom is en suite, i.e., accessed directly from the bedroom, with one's dignity intact.

For most non-smokers, including myself, the presence of cigarette smoke can induce headaches, ruin meals, stink up clothing, and generally diminish the quality of any stay. Airbnb currently has a house rule for "smoking allowed", but this check box being unchecked does not ensure that the property will be free of cigarette smoke. At one "non-smoking" house in Mazatlán, the host did not allow smoking indoors, but did go outside every day to enjoy a couple cigarettes whose smoke would drift into the house through all of the open windows. A similar situation happened in a place in Medellin, where the host and his other guests would smoke on the patio with the patio door open. In Aguascalientes, the guests could not smoke indoors, but the host's friends were allowed to. Airbnb should clarify that house rule to indicate not just whether guests are allowed to smoke in the place, but that no one is allowed to smoke inside or outside of the place, including the host and their friends.

Honest Ratings and Reviews

Just as a host is able to post written feedback on a recent guest, the guest can provide the same for the host — specifically, an overall rating from one star up to five stars, and a written review up to 500 words in length. When searching for a place to stay, prospective guests need as much relevant information as possible. For each property, the host must offer a written description, indicate their property's qualities for the search filters, and post photos of the place. But there is no guarantee that any of what the host claims is true or, if it had been verified once, whether or not it is still true. Consequently, prospective guests rely heavily upon the feedback of guests who have already stayed at that property. For the system to work well for guests, those star ratings and reviews must be accurate, including all of the negative feedback as well as the positive. But they usually are anything but accurate.

The problem is that the star ratings are dramatically skewed upwards (similar to "grade inflation" in US public schools) and the written reviews are overly positive. One can see this without needing to perform any statistical analysis on all of the existing ratings and reviews (assuming such data is even available for objective scrutiny). Examine all of the properties available in any major city in any country supported by Airbnb. The majority of the properties have a star rating between 4 ("Good") and 5 ("Great"), with most of those much closer to the latter, regardless of how substandard the property appears in its photos or the evident hesitancy of past guests to specify any detail in their reviews. Speaking of which, most reviews are too short and detail-free to be of any value, consisting only of vapid praise (e.g., "Great location! Great host!") or outright lies (e.g., "We'll be back!").

Most experienced Airbnb guests are well aware of the problem, and talk about it among themselves — in person, in travel forums (e.g., Reddit), and in podcasts (e.g., The Trip Doctor). Every one of them has fallen prey to the rampant fluffy reviews, and consequently ended up staying in and paying for disappointing Airbnb rentals. For instance, I personally have been hurt by this problem. I always carefully read the full property listing, including all of the past reviews, and ask the host lots of questions. Nonetheless, I still ended up in an awful and loud place for a long stay (in Guatemala), based on the lies of earlier guests and the host.

Other writers have addressed this topic. In her article "Why You Can't Always Trust a 5 Star AirBnB", Charity-Joy Acchiardo notes that guests (including herself) will often leave no review rather than a negative one. Furthermore, she points out that:

By providing more information for hosts — they can see both the reviews about the guest and the reviews the guest has written — AirBnB’s rating system actually provides less information for guests! Guests respond to their incentives by only leaving positive reviews. Hosts respond to their incentives by only renting to guests who leave positive reviews. So average ratings remain very high and can potentially be misleading.

Clearly the cause of the problem is straightforward: A guest writing a fatuous review is rationally deciding not to risk being rejected in the future by a host who likely will see any negative review and doesn't want the same to happen to their own property listing. The top executives at Airbnb evidently don't think this is a problem. If they did, then by now we would've heard of their using "secret guests" and surprise visits by employees to evaluate properties and penalize hosts that have been dishonest in their listings.

Until Airbnb recognizes that their platform is plagued by disingenuous 5-star reviews and does something about it, what can guests do to see through the endemic disingenuousness and better gauge the true quality of the properties? Here are some ideas:

Regardless of these areas for possible improvement, Airbnb is, in my opinion, still an incredibly useful service that has greatly benefited digital nomads worldwide. We have to be smart in evaluating available properties. Happy hunting, fellow guests!