Why Airbnb reviews are too tactful to be trusted

Users are reluctant to be a digital whinger in the collaborative space

Disruptive businesses such as Airbnb and Uber are becoming so successful that, in some jurisdictions, governments and traditional businesses are pushing for ways to restrict how they operate.

New research from Emma McDaid in the school of accounting at UNSW Business School, along with colleagues Christina Boedker and Clinton Free, has found the system of user-generated reviews at the heart of all these platforms may have more to them than meets the eye.

The research looks specifically at home-sharing site Airbnb, which operates a blind review process – where both guests and hosts post a review of their experience, without the benefit of seeing what the other person is saying.

Reviews are hugely significant, as they impact on the ability of both hosts and guests to successfully use the site in the future. The intention of the process is a good one, as it prevents users from gaming the system, such as by agreeing to give mutually positive reviews when they are not deserved.

But what the researchers have discovered is that reviewers appear to be using a number of strategies to avoid revealing the full story of their experience, essentially skewing reviews towards the positive.

Strategies include using private reviewing channels, creating tactful reviews, or avoiding leaving reviews at all. Consequently, the trustworthiness of these reviews calls into question their usefulness to third parties, in deciding whether to engage with individuals as either guests or hosts.

'In the shared economy more generally, there seems to be a disinclination to ‘bad mouth’ someone'

EMMA MCDAID

“Our research suggests that in a scenario where online ratings and reviews are reciprocal, a concern for the other’s reputation can compel users to write positively in a review, even in an instance where they have had a negative experience,” says McDaid.

Social cooling

“The premise of the shared economy is collaborative consumption, and so the reviewing process is an essential part of what makes it work,” says McDaid.

“Platform owners such as Airbnb and Uber talk about self-regulation, with frequent references to online ratings and reviews. This is how they guarantee transparency.”

But does facilitating guests staying in the actual homes of their hosts make Airbnb somewhat unique in the sharing economy?

“There is something about the intimacy,” says McDaid. “I interviewed people who didn’t want to say anything negative about someone’s home, which was different from staying in a serviced apartment that was not someone’s home.

“And in the shared economy more generally, there seems to be a disinclination to ‘bad mouth’ someone.”

 McDaid’s research connects with the idea of ‘social cooling’, where online users are reluctant to post anything negative on any platform, for fear of developing a digital reputation as someone who does this.

But if reviews are skewed, how does a user get value out of them?

“I still look at online reviews, but I also ask for supplementary information and make decisions based on this. We found our interviewees actually did the same thing,” says McDaid.

“For businesses in this space, it’s important to build a platform that provides users with as much information as possible to allow them to make decisions. Online reviews, by themselves, are not sufficient for this purpose.”

Can't be undone

Oliver Lee is the managing director of short-term residential rental management company Hostmybnb, which manages properties on behalf of owners on sites such as Airbnb.

“Airbnb is not the first short-term rental marketplace, but it has been one of the big drivers of using reviews,” says Lee.

“The key issue for them was building trust. How do we get someone to be comfortable with letting someone in their home? The answer was the review process.”

'There’s a big difference in response volume and quality if a business requests reviews, rather than just making it possible'

- MICHAEL LAPS

Noting that an Airbnb review can’t be undone, even if it’s posted in error, Lee’s business tries to intervene in the process before someone posts a review, by constantly communicating with both guests and hosts.

“We give guests the chance to give feedback before the reviews,” he says, “to sort out any problems before they might lead to a bad review. This is the added value we bring to the business.”

Lee notes this early intervention is especially useful in instances where guests were unhappy about, say, noise levels in a property, but where this was actually explained in the information (not everyone reads the information thoroughly).

And if there really is a significant problem that affects a guest’s stay, Lee likes to “compensate time for time”, by, for example, giving the guests a free Uber ride to the airport on departure.

“These days, if you’re not using peer-to-peer review metrics in your business, you can be sure your competitors will be,” he says.

Most people are lazy

“Reviews are a part of the sales funnel – an essential part of how we browse, assess and decide on the products and services we purchase,” says Michael Laps, director of digital marketing agency Yoghurt Digital.

The phenomenon of self-censored reviews is something that many in the industry are aware of. But for Laps, this is really a variation on fake reviews – that is, of not being transparent. And crucially, all reviews are a function of the customer experience.

“Most people are lazy and don’t leave reviews, so if they do happen to leave one, it’s usually because they either had a great experience or a terrible experience. And it’s usually the latter,” he says.

“So if customers put a significant amount of work into their positive reviews, it shows that the business is doing something right.”

And where a lot of businesses fall down is that they simply don’t ask people to leave reviews.

“There’s a big difference in response volume and quality if a business requests reviews, rather than just making it possible,” he says.

Laps gives the example of US fashion retailer Modcloth, to show where the world of reviews may be heading. Modcloth has built up an entire online community around reviews – especially with customers posting details of their body size and shape, which informs other customers about best buys.

“Reviews are not going away,” says Laps. “You have to embrace them, not shun them. If you’re afraid of receiving a consistent flow of negative reviews, maybe you should be asking yourself why that’s the case. What are you doing that’s causing that to happen?

“At the other end of the spectrum, if you have a constant and unrelenting focus on customer experience, then the reviews will take care of themselves,” Laps says.

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