For the holidays, you may have gone to an Airbnb accommodation, like about 8 million French people. Were you disappointed or delighted by your experience? On Airbnb, opinions are often positive. The collaborative economy platform even claims that 75% of its users publish reviews, and that more than 90% of these reviews are positive. Did you say shady? Can we really believe all these comments? But what happened to the normally unavoidable negative opinions?
Decrepit walls, dampness in the bathroom, noise in the street, TV not working, soft mattresses… You have probably already had the opportunity to rent an apartment based on splendid photos and rave reviews, and to realize on the spot that it was not really the haven of peace that you had fantasized. In this case, either you decide to move on, or you are angry and determined to leave a comment on the booking site.
On TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp or Booking, no problem: you post your review, it is published very quickly and you don’t risk much, except a simple answer from your host, to which you will be able to reply again. Anyway, you can use a pseudonym. But on Airbnb, the rules of the game are different. Anonymity does not exist on this platform – precisely in order to avoid false opinions. Indeed, while Airbnb, Expedia or Booking allow customers to evaluate their stay only after or during it, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google offer the possibility to rate or write a review at any time, on any establishment. Leaving the door open to false criticism, written by competitors or even bots or in critics’ farms, located on the other side of the world. As a result, there are many sites, such as 123 Followers and Acheter-des-Avis.com, that sell Google or TripAdvisor reviews for 15-20 euros – a good way for hotels to artificially boost their popularity. Airbnb obviously does not want this kind of practice to be possible on its site, where the hosts are private individuals. To avoid fake reviews, the platform therefore obliges users to book and comment under their real name. This creates a sense of trust in the face of criticism.
But if these comments are real, are they reliable, or at least representative? 90% of positive opinions, really? The absence of anonymity is reassuring and encourages trust in opinions, but it can also paradoxically deter some users who would like to leave a negative criticism. First of all, because we don’t necessarily like to attach our name to something negative, such as comments. Especially when other guests can then read them… and decide to rent (or not) their accommodation to you, depending on the content of your past reviews.
The economy of sharing is today synonymous with the economy of reputation: as soon as something goes wrong, it must be said, in the name of the name and shame principle. But in return, another mechanism counterbalances this basically very sound practice: whether on Airbnb or Uber, you too are rated. Your VTC driver or your host will then evaluate you, along with your own evaluation, in order to foster mutual respect between the two. But the result of such a system is obviously the possibility for a customer who has received too many negative reviews, to be refused a race or accommodation reservation.
On Airbnb, the traveller has 14 days after leaving on holiday to leave a comment, but so does the host. And any notice is only visible if both people have published something. Without the possibility of deleting them afterwards, of course. On Uber, a driver has the right not to accept a ride if you are identified as a passenger to avoid, with a score of less than 4.69 out of 5. A way for the platforms to stop wasting too much time with the wrong customers, but also a mechanism that can impact the very behaviour of the user – forced to smile and chat even when he doesn’t feel like it during an Uber race, or to be the perfect guest of his Airbnb host; but also pushed not to leave too negative a comment on his experience.
Beyond this mechanism that pushes us to leave positive comments in order not to be badly rated and labelled by other hosts as a difficult customer (and therefore to be banned), it is our own comments, visible to all, that can have a deterrent effect, by making us look like customers who are not bad, but razor-sharp – complainers, with easy criticism. A bit like in a recent episode of the Black Mirror series where everyone is rating everyone in the near future, this system takes away the power of the consumer: from now on, he will probably think twice before writing a review. At least if he plans to use Airbnb or Uber again someday.
As Seth Porges, Airbnb’s tech writer and superhost, writes on his blog (according to the site, superhosts are experienced hosts who offer exceptional experiences to their travellers): comments left about you by former hosts are important, but the little secret is that they are not as important as comments you yourself have left about the hosts you stayed with. They live in constant fear of the dreaded Bad Review. So you’d better believe that we’re checking the reviews a guest has left on the guests they’ve stayed with. So, he explains, guests who leave seemingly unreasonable, quibbling negative reviews can expect to be rejected by future hosts: if those reviews are unfair (the sheets were the wrong colour, it rained all the time, they did not provide a service that was neither advertised nor requested), a host is inclined to believe that you will be a never-happy guest, who will leave a bad review no matter what.
On Reddit, a host, hidden under the nickname of ASayWhat, also confesses it : I look at the criticisms that travellers have left on other hosts and check whether there are any complaints that are a little too nitpicky, for example a stain on a skirting board, scratchy paper… I also look to see if there is a discrepancy between what they said and what the host said. Some guests leave a bad review for their hosts while others don’t, which is telling. These people are hard to please and do not hesitate to share petty thoughts in public. I can do without it, personally.
According to Airbnb, interviewed by Inc.com, customers feel no pressure to give only positive feedback. Travellers and hosts just take evaluations very seriously, especially because they use them to make their own decisions about where to stay, or who to accept in their home. It’s hard to say more contradictory things, but never mind. The result of all this is this: 82% of bookable accommodation on Airbnb has a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. In France, Airbnb homes received 4.6 stars out of 5, for more than 12 million comments. It is therefore difficult to know whether or not it is possible to use these opinions as a basis for preparing your trip.
Finally, it should be noted that, as tech columnist Chloé Freslon noted in the Quebec program Moteur de Recherche, Airbnb charges 6 to 12% of the total cost for each transaction made. So the platform has every interest in making you feel like you’re going to have a good time. And so that the comments are as positive as possible on his site. Seen in this light, you probably won’t be surprised to read, as well, many testimonials from customers who complain that their negative criticism has been erased by Airbnb… or never published.
It is also logical, in this respect, that the platform combats any attempt to extort and use comments or responses to comments to force a user to do something that is not within his or her obligations (e.g. ask a traveller to leave a positive comment or rating, in exchange for a partial or full refund, or reciprocal comment), but at the same time leaves travellers and guests the opportunity to haggle.
For example, Airbnb says its policy does not prohibit the traveller from contacting the host to report a problem before leaving a comment, nor does it prohibit the host from asking the traveller to leave a note or an honest and positive comment. Finally, the host or traveller may amend a negative comment, provided that they do so within the time limit for the amendment. Time to take a step back, in the face of pressure?