(Bloomberg Opinion) -- My family visited Hudson, New York, for a couple of days in March for the same reason everyone goes there. It’s a cool little town surrounded by the Hudson Valley and stocked with wonderful food, crafts, shops and people. We used Airbnb.com to rent a place for our stay.
The rental was the only bad part of our visit. Garbage was piled in front of the driveway when we arrived. The patio that looked quaint and cozy online was a mess and ringed with construction equipment. The hot water didn’t work. A load of clothes was in the laundry machine. The pedestal sink in the bathroom needed only a gentle nudge to tip over. The ladder to the loft bedroom was too steep for kids. And so on.
We decided to hang in there and not request a refund. The host was a nice guy, and when I told him about the hot water he called and walked me through a reboot of his system. But my online review of his place — which cited its good location, its kind, communicative host and its disappointments — was mediocre. It was the first poor rating I’ve given to an Airbnb host, and I felt vaguely guilty about it. My wife and I rationalized that away by agreeing that an honest review would help future travelers make better decisions. Besides, most of the reviews of the Hudson property were positive. How much of a difference could ours make?
I forgot about the review until a few days ago, when an Airbnb “resolution support ambassador” emailed me out of the blue to inform me that my evaluation of the Hudson rental violated its “review policy” and was taken down. I looked at the review policy, and nothing I wrote seemed like a transgression. I said I didn’t understand the decision and asked to have a supervisor look at it. My support ambassador said no.
Although Airbnb Inc. has weathered criticism for price-gouging, bait-and-switch scams and a stock price that soared and then tumbled since its initial public offering in December, its bookings have boomed over the last year. While the Covid-19 pandemic sideswiped the traditional hotel industry, Airbnb’s portfolio of nonurban lodgings and long-term rentals got a boost from remote work, a rebound in domestic leisure travel and preferences for more intimate home-shares.
With business surging, why bother selectively dinging a bad — but accurate — review? Airbnb is largely meant to be self-regulating, and candid reviews, in theory, help keep everybody honest.
After fishing around for information about how often Airbnb deletes negative reviews, I came across an interesting Quartz article from 2018. It found that some Airbnb users’ negative reviews “were either edited or quietly removed from the site without their knowledge or permission.” Airbnb assured Quartz that its content policy was meant to ensure integrity and that authentic reviews were “critical to building trust.”
Some users have speculated that Airbnb selectively removes negative reviews to protect its top sellers. While the surprisingly ubiquitous online debate about the integrity of Airbnb’s reviews often notes that hosts don’t have the power to have bad reviews removed, that’s not true. Airbnb has a process that allows hosts to appeal negative critiques. I also discovered a robust cottage industry that helps hosts contend with bad reviews. Advisers plying that trade offer how-tos such as “Remove Airbnb Reviews — A Superhost’s Secret Weapon” and “Bad Airbnb Reviews: How to Turn Them into Your Weapon.”
Structuring a public review system that’s foolproof is tricky, and Airbnb has become a continuing lab experiment for academics interested in parsing its data to uncover management insights or sociological takeaways (this recent study is just one interesting example). Still, the reasons Airbnb gave me for removing my review had nothing to do with complexity. Among other things, they said it wasn’t “relevant.” This appears to be a common reason Airbnb gives when it deletes poor reviews.
After Airbnb declined to escalate my query about my deleted review, I told them that I would get in touch with the company directly the next morning. A few hours later, a “senior case manager” on Airbnb’s “escalation desk” messaged me promising to take a closer look. The next day, another “support ambassador” also got involved. Nothing changed. After I contacted Airbnb’s media relations department and said I was interested in doing a column about my experience, a spokesman, Aaron Swor, took quick action.
Airbnb eventually reposted my review, and Swor said the company made a mistake by deleting it. Swor said it was removed after my host in Hudson asked Airbnb to do so. I asked Swor how frequently Airbnb deletes negative reviews, and he said “it happens very rarely.”
“We believe that a healthy review system is one that respects and protects our community’s genuine feedback,” he added. “For that reason, we take the removal of any review very seriously.”
Perhaps that’s true, but Airbnb only seemed to take the removal of my review seriously once it knew I was a journalist. I also asked Swor about suspicions that Airbnb favors its hosts at the expense of its users because the site’s financial interests are aligned with top sellers. “This is not true,” he responded, reiterating that reviews are removed only if they violate the site’s content policy.
I think Airbnb is a great service, but trust is a fragile and fleeting thing. Memorial Day weekend is approaching, and if Airbnb has helped you find a place to stay, read those reviews carefully and ask yourself if anything might have been left out. Or deleted.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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