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If you read a guest review of an Airbnb-provided vacation rental listing on Google’s travel pages in Chicago, London, or Bangkok, all of the reviews seemingly come from what is labeled as an “Airbnb.com reviewer” instead of Hazel P. or Betty M., for instance.
That’s a sterile approach to user-generated content, but perhaps it is a strategic move. Why hand Google the more personalized experience with reviewers that guests might enjoy on Airbnb or TripAdvisor?
“Airbnb and TripAdvisor’s brands may be strong enough to outweigh the loss of user-generated content/trust signals,” said Scott Breon, chief analytics officer and head of revenue at Vacasa. “It could also be an A/B test by the vendor within the marketplace — not coordinated by Google.”
In Google’s vacation rental pages, guest reviews are static review snippets. There’s no clicking around to get more information about the reviewer and and their review history.
Contrast this approach with how Airbnb handles guest reviews on Airbnb.com. As shown on the screen grab from Airbnb.com, each guest review has a first name and the person’s photo, and users can click on “Irene’s” photo, for example, and read that she joined Airbnb in 2017, lives in Decatur, Georgia, and for context Airbnb customers can read critiques of her from hosts in Sydney, Australia, and North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in the United States.
Unlike in Google’s travel pages, Airbnb.com users can also click on the hosts’ photos to see information about them, and read what previous guests thought of their stay.
The Airbnb and TripAdvisor.com guest review experience on their own websites is much more engaging and community-oriented than the fledgling one that Google’s vacation rental pages currently offer for these brands. And, conversion issues — the degree to which the guest reviews lead to bookings — aside, that is probably the point.
In other words, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Holiday Lettings probably want to save the good stuff, namely the more engaging customer experience, for their own websites rather than ceding that terrain to Google. Google, after all, is both a partner and competitor.
So for TripAdvisor and its Holiday Lettings brand, their guest reviews in Google’s vacation rentals pages have no user names that we found other than “TripAdvisor.com reviewer” or “Holiday Lettings reviewer.” These, too might be part of A/B tests; we’ve seen some vacation rentals from these brands on Google that when you click on a Reviews button, Google says, “Review content is not available for this rental.”
In the case of Airbnb, the current way it offers guest reviews on Google’s vacation rental pages is indeed an Airbnb-run A/B test. Airbnb declined to comment on the issue.
TripAdvisor declined to comment on its approach to guest reviews in Google vacation rentals. TripAdvisor spokesman Kevin Carter said “we don’t break out the details of our licensing agreements.”
According to Google, it is the vacation rental partners themselves that decide whether to send Google their reviewers’ names. Google asks all vacation rental partners to provide guest reviews but it isn’t an explicit requirement to send them to Google.
The More Personal Approach
So while Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Holiday Lettings are apparently not offering reviewer names in Google vacation rentals — at least in all of the searches Skift viewed in markets such as Chicago, New York City, London, Bangkok, and Singapore, other Google partners do indeed provide reviews with reviewer names. First name, and the last-name initial, that is.
Google partners providing guest reviews with names such as Charlene Q. or Jose L. include Vacasa, Vrbo, and RedAwning, for example. Another Google partner, Rentals United, was not providing Google with any guest reviews in the several dozen searches we conducted.
Rentals United CEO James Burrows told Skift why. “We’re a pure channel manager, Vacasa is a property manager, and RedAwning is a marketing platform,” Burrows said. “As a channel manager, we do not collect reviews at present, yet Google on-boards our properties at great speed.”
Actually, RedAwning CEO Tim Choate said the company intermixes both approaches — reviews with names and reviews without them — in Google’s vacation rental pages.
“I’m not sure what the overall impact is, but to me the reviews seem more personal and real with a guest name than without,” Choate said.
Booking.com and Agoda, which are sister companies, do not partner with Google in its vacation rentals metasearch, or price comparison, feature. Southeast Asia’s Agoda had been an active participant when Google vacation rentals debuted, it subsequently dropped out, preferring to push direct bookings on its own sites.
No Monetization Yet
It should be emphasized that Google’s vacation rentals pages are only one year old, and will evolve — as will its treatment of partners’ guest reviews, and the overall booking experience.
Many people might not be aware that unlike the bidding process to win a presence in Google’s hotel pages, Google’s vacation rentals feature is free for providers for now; there is no bidding process.
In a variety of global markets we perused, Expedia’s Vrbo has an outsized presence compared with Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Vacasa, Holding Lettings, RedAwning, and Rentals United, for example.
The reason for Vrbo’s high profile in Google’s vacation rental pages appears to be because of its “content, quantity, and review content,” said Choate of RedAwning. Another factor, Choate added, is that Airbnb might not be giving Google access to many of its homes and apartments.
Vrbo didn’t respond to a request for comment about these issues.
Google’s Review Approach
In Google’s hotel pages, partners’ guests reviews from brands such as Booking.com or Expedia.com, coexist with reviews written by Google users.
There are no Google user reviews in its vacation rentals pages yet, however. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Google is likely collecting its own guest reviews of vacation rental properties, and would likely publish them at a certain point.
Google’s various partners are undoubtedly testing the performance of their anonymous guest reviews, first-name-only guest reviews, and the question of whether to provide Google with guest reviews at all.
How will the return on investment be impacted by various incarnations of brands’ guest-written reviews on Google? Will the return be high enough to preclude handing Google the kind of user engagement with more personalized reviews that customers enjoy on the brands’ own websites? These are likely some of the calculations.
Regarding the pros and cons of personalized guest reviews versus merely brand-labeled reviews, consider that on Google’s hotel pages online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking.com at various times market their properties like this: “Read Real Guest Reviews. Get Instant Confirmation.”
That’s real guest reviews versus the antiseptic corporate-labeled version.
How Is Google Vacation Rentals Performing?
Heather Richer, RedAwning’s chief marketing officer, said Google Hotel Ads for short-term rentals, which is how the vacation rental feature is known, is “in its early stages but it’s definitely beginning to gain more traffic, and we’re seeing more guest volume.”
As Google adds more homes from partners into the Google vacation rentals feature, “it’s clear they are trying to provide a deeper in-context experience so the guest can dream, shop, and make a decision on Google,” Richer said.
As in other industries where a similar user experience is taking place, “Google simply passes the guest along at the transaction stage, making it a ‘zero click’ experience for the traveler,” Richer said.
Whether it’s for Google search, maps, itineraries, flights, hotels, or short-term rentals, once consumers come to learn that Google is the place to go for travel information, then competitors would be disadvantaged.
That’s one reason why Booking.com and Agoda don’t currently participate in Google’s new vacation rental feature. Participation in it can turn out to be an existential questions for the entire short-term rental industry.