Thankfully, those situations are rare.
But there’s one major issue with Airbnb that’s affecting users every day: the site’s review system.
Airbnb is a two-way marketplace: users rent a place to stay on the site, while hosts use it to find those temporary renters. At the end of each stay, the user and the host alike have the opportunity to review each other.
But the problem is that these reviews aren’t anonymous, and I believe this causes people to feel pressure to post reviews that lean positive.
If you have an unsatisfactory stay in an Airbnb property and leave a review that reflects your experience, your name is attached to your negative review forever. This might dissuade you from being honest, because then, future hosts who see your negative reviews might be reluctant to rent to you, fearing you’ll give them a bad review, too.
If you’re an Airbnb user, just think about it: when was the last time you checked out a property you might want to rent and actually saw a bad review? The site has barely any — and it’s just not possible that every property could be as good as the reviews make them seem.
On a recent trip to California. I stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with my family. I selected the apartment thanks to its location, clean and light-filled appearance in photos, and its collection of stellar reviews.
The “place was perfect,” one reviewer gushed. “We loved it.”
“The apartment is exactly as described, clean, comfortable and in a great location,” another said. “Can’t recommend highly enough.”
“The apartment was spic and span, spacious and light,” yet another wrote. “We highly recommend them!!!”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived at the apartment and it was cluttered, dark, stuffy, and not nearly as welcoming as it had looked in the photos.
Inside, it smelled like mildew, as if no one had opened a window in days.
The host’s stuff was everywhere. We tripped over her totally packed shoe rack next to the door — and couldn’t help noticing that the shoes were caked with mud.
We couldn’t find room to set up our laptops on the cluttered coffee table — the same coffee table that was completely bare in a photo.
And a rogue yoga ball kept rolling down the hallway out of nowhere, threatening to trip anyone who wasn’t paying attention.
The final straw was the bathtub drain, which was full of unidentifiable black gunk left behind by some prior occupant. I gave in and cleaned it out after day two, but couldn’t help but wonder, why are we paying $US200 a night to clean up someone else’s mess?
All of this made it feel like we were borrowing an apartment for free from a friend who was doing us a favour — not paying big bucks for a place that other reviewers had deemed “perfect.”
Even so, none of these issues was big enough on its own for me to raise a stink with the host or demand a refund without seeming petty. They were pretty minor inconveniences. But taken together, they made me wonder what all the reviewers had been thinking when they raved about the place. Was this the same apartment they’d all apparently loved? How had no one else noticed the smell or the clutter?
Then, I understood one reason for all of the positive reviews: each reviewer’s name, their photo, and a link to their profile accompanies their review. Of course users would want to seem friendly and agreeable to the Airbnb community. Their ability to be approved by future hosts depended on it.
When it came time for me to write my own review, I’m ashamed to say I balked at stating the whole truth, which was that the apartment was dark and grimey and full of someone else’s stuff. I did, however, make note that there were some tripping hazards due to the host’s belongings being left all over the place.
And I couldn’t help but wonder whether fellow users would have written the same thing if they’d had the opportunity to write their reviews anonymously.
I decided to contact Airbnb and ask them whether they’d considered users’ urge to save face when they elected not to allow anonymous reviews. A spokesperson pointed me in the direction of this blog post, which explains the review process.
There is some measure of anonymity in the process, as reviews are double-blind. So, for example, when my recent host and I were in the process of reviewing each other, neither of us could see the other one’s review until we’d both completed our own.
Also, users are able to directly message their hosts after their stay in order to tell them what needs improvement — a function I took full advantage of.
But this information isn’t made public, so it creates an opportunity for reviewers to chicken out and address their concerns privately with the host, rather than warning future users of the quality of the apartment.
This didn’t alleviate my concerns that users and hosts were leaving falsely cheerful reviews in order to preserve their own reputations within the site, so I asked why, specifically, anonymous reviews weren’t allowed, and I made it known that the review process had dissuaded me from being honest because I didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker within the platform.
“The long and short of it,” the spokesperson replied, “is that we believe that anonymity has no place on Airbnb.”
This might be true — but the ironic thing is that Airbnb’s verification standards have caused me to lose trust in other users’ reviews. The next time I book through Airbnb, I will take the dozen or so rave reviews that accompany each listing with a grain of salt.