‘It Didn’t Look Like This in the Picture.’ Is Airbnb Sanitizing Bad Reviews?


Illustration: iStock

User reviews are to Airbnb what laws are to society: the very lifeblood that holds it together and keeps it from descending into a chaos of anarchy, lawlessness, and dirty bathrooms.

When you’re on Airbnb considering whether to pay hundreds of dollars to stay in someone’s home for a few days, the only thing keeping you from staying at a bad place are reviews: the good ones and the negative ones.

Now Airbnb is dealing with public claims that it’s effectively stifling some negative feedback — thus jeopardizing the sanctity of user reviews in Airbnb Land. Brian Le Vell tells the Telegraph that when he arrived at a Madrid apartment he’d rented through Airbnb, he found “brown ring marks on the pillows,” mold in the bathroom, and “a half-eaten pastry" down the side of the sofa — and the kitchen in a condition he describes as “grubby.”


Brian Le Vell says a Madrid apartment he rented on Airbnb had all kinds of problems, including a moldy bathroom. (Photo: Brian Le Vell)

He tells the Telegraph he decided to leave the apartment and find somewhere else to say. The good news is that Airbnb was accommodating when he called asking for a refund; they gave him the refund and a £100 (US$156) Airbnb voucher.

But what has Le Vell upset is that when he went back to recount his experience in the “review” section of his online booking, he found his booking had disappeared — leaving him unable to warn other Airbnb users who might be inclined to rent that same apartment.


Eww … an old pastry Le Vell says he found behind the couch in his Airbnb rental. (Photo: Brian Le Vell)

Turns out, Le Vell had run afoul of Airbnb’s review policy: “If you cancel a reservation as a guest before the reservation begins, you cannot leave a review for the host, because reviews should describe completed trips.” Occasions like Le Vell’s, where he virtually ran away screaming once he got a good look at his temporary apartment, presumably fall under that clause.

Le Vell says that’s unfair. “Guest reviews are of the utmost importance when booking accommodation,” he tells the Telegraph, “and I feel that Airbnb is manipulating its reviews by not allowing them in cases like mine. Other travelers may have had the same experience but there’s no way to check if they also had their bookings cancelled.”

Related: What Are the Risks of Using Airbnb When Traveling?

Whitewashing bad reviews or rooting out the bogus ones?

Airbnb’s reason for the policy seems logical: They want to keep the site free of fake reviews, which historically have been a big concern for travel sites like Airbnb and TripAdvisor. So Airbnb polices user reviews pretty conscientiously. “Airbnb’s default position is not to censor, edit, or delete reviews,” Airbnb says on its website. “However, there are rare cases in which we may take the extraordinary step of disallowing or removing reviews or review responses. We reserve the right to remove reviews that violate review guidelines.”

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“It’s true, there’s a problem with bogus reviews,” says travel writer and author Christopher Elliott of Airbnb’s policy. “There is some logic to it but it’s a self-serving logic.“ That logic, Elliott says, can potentially saddle an unsuspecting Airbnb user with a bad property they otherwise could have been warned away from, had the previous renter not forfeited his review rights because he did an instant U-turn upon seeing the place (it’s not as if it takes long to determine if a place is a dump). "You have to allow for the fact that people are going to show up, not like the product, and leave,” says Elliott. “They still have an experience that’s worth sharing.”

Are Airbnb reviews over-sanitized?

When contacted by Yahoo Travel, Airbnb gave no indication that it’s changing its policy, but it admits it could have handled Le Vell’s situation differently. “Our initial response to this customer didn’t meet the standards we set for ourselves, and we’ve suspended this listing while we investigate further,” a spokesperson tells Yahoo Travel. “Our review system is built on transparency and authenticity, and with millions of reviews on Airbnb, isolated experiences like this one are extremely rare.”

Not rare enough for some Airbnb users. “This happens fairly often, actually,” Elliott says of runaway renters who are blocked from posting their bad experiences on Airbnb. “This is how they are able to keep a lot of the [bad] reviews off of Airbnb. No one [at Airbnb] wants to have the negativity. It’s bad for business.”

Elizabeth Israel of Seattle says Airbnb edited her bad review of a place she stayed at in Ecuador last year. “I guess it’s their right,” she tells Yahoo Travel. “But don’t ask for feedback if all you want is glorious feedback.”


Though popular with users, Airbnb does get some complaints that its policies regulating user reviews don’t allow for honest and accurate feedback. (Image: Airbnb)

There are other factors that, critics say, keep Airbnb reviews from being truly honest and unspoiled. In addition to the “you must stay in the property to review it” policy, Airbnb users often complain about the 14-day limit the company gives users to post their reviews once their stay ends. While the company obviously wants reviews to be fresh and accurate, some travelers on long trips find that policy a bit limiting.

“I was trying to post a review for a lovely flat I stayed at in New York, but because I was busy traveling, I didn’t get the chance to review it before the deadline,” Maria from the U.K. tells Yahoo Travel. Maria was disappointed her extended trip kept her from posting what she says would have been a glowing review. “I thought it was super counterproductive of Airbnb to not allow users to post their reviews anytime considering said travelers might not necessarily be online or ready to post under 14 days!!”

Related: 11 Things You Need to Know About Airbnb Before You Book

Then there’s a “nice guy bias.” Because Airbnb reviews are public, users often are afraid to post something bad about someone else’s home, either because they think it’s rude or they fear other hosts will blackball them as a serial complainer (Molly Mulshine wrote about this phenomenon for Business Insider). Or maybe they’ll be confronted by an irate host, as Elizabeth Israel says she was after she left her place in Ecuador. “He hunted me down into the city center and started screaming at me because I was going to cost him business,” she remembers.

So if leaving bad reviews becomes difficult, for whatever reason, the fear is that the honest feedback Airbnb users depend on becomes diluted. “Obviously they’re in it to make money,” says Israel. “If you don’t allow people to give true postings from their experience, you’re kind of taking away from the reality.”


Some users complain Airbnb makes it difficult to leave bad reviews. “If you want everything to be positive and great and glowing, then don’t ask for reviews,” says Airbnb fan Elizabeth Israel. (Photo: Airbnb)

For its part, Airbnb likes to point to its 40-million-strong (and growing) users, many of whom the company says are repeat visitors who are satisfied with the product. Both Israel and Maria tell Yahoo Travel that, despite past problems leaving bad reviews, they still like Airbnb “a lot.”

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For the relatively few dissatisfied customers, the company does have a refund policy (remember: Le Vell did get a full refund, plus a voucher). But when you’re on a trip, do you really want to deal with such an inconvenient hiccup — even one that results in a full refund — which you could have avoided had a previous user been able to post about his/her own bad experience? “You’ve already wasted so much of your time,” says Elliott. “You could have saved yourself all this time and gone with a hotel.”

Reducing the risk

Assuming that Airbnb user reviews might not always tell the whole story, how can you reduce your risk of encountering a dump? “Don’t confine your search to Airbnb reviews because you’re only going to get the sanitized version of the Airbnb experience,” Elliott suggests. He recommends using the address or name of the Airbnb rental to do a much broader online search. “Chances are you’re going to find some other reviews out there,” Elliott says. “Maybe someone wrote about [the property] on their blog or mentioned it on Twitter or Facebook. You’ll get a much more complete picture of the place.”


Want to get a true picture of an Airbnb rental? Look outside the site’s user reviews. (Photo: AP)

It just might be that using Airbnb requires at least some assumption of risk. “With an Airbnb rental, you could get a really great rental or you could get a really crappy rental,” says Elliott. “Airbnb is never going to be able to fix that problem of consistency. This is why hotels have an edge on Airbnb — because they have the consistency. You know that there’s going to be soap and shampoo in the shower. You know the place is going to be clean to a certain standard.”

Of course, what some call “consistency” others call “cookie-cutter.” And that type of sterile, chain-hotel consistency is what leads many travelers to Airbnb in the first place. “It’s not appealing,” Israel says of staying in hotels. She prefers the local feel she gets from Airbnb. “I would never have found some of the things that I find when I stay in an Airbnb place.” To some travelers, that’s worth the potential risk of scrubbed reviews landing them in an occasional dud.

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