Airbnb CEO Chesky ambushed over grade inflation in user reviews

November 3, 2011

Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky found himself ambushed after a talk he gave last night at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club with LinkedIn chairman Reid Hoffman. A young British man approached and told Chesky about his one and only Airbnb experience: staying with a woman who got great reviews on the site but in person, seemed lonely and wouldn’t stop talking. He ended up forgoing his paid-for bed for a friend’s sofa.

His point: Airbnb is suffering from the same grade-inflation common to other peer-reviewed sites such as Yelp — exacerbated, he said, by peer pressure not to trash talk somebody who could be the friend of a friend. This is a case, he argued, where Facebook connections — which Airbnb fans tout as a great way to establish the credibility of a potential host or guest — are harming rather than promoting the flow of information.

Chesky listened, but another man cut in and introduced himself before he could give a response. Meanwhile, another woman in the circle of Chesky admirers  jumped in with her own similar story.

An Airbnb spokeswoman said that over 80 percent of guests and 75 percent of hosts leave feedback for each other, and that “Airbnb goes beyond the industry standard in building reputation on and offline.”

During his talk on stage, Chesky waxed eloquent about the year he spent living soley with Airbnb users, so he may have some familiarity with the Chatty Cathy syndrome himself.

But overly upbeat reviews don’t seem to be harming the Airbnb juggernaut. The service has 100,000 listings in 16,000 cities. Even Hoffman, who told moderator Brad Stone from Bloomberg Businessweek¬† that he wasn’t interested in living the Airbnb lifestyle, said he was considering renting a castle he saw on the site for a future trip to England.

And even the anonymous critic didn’t seem put off.¬† “I’d try Airbnb again,” he said.

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It’s also helpful to note that Airbnb often does not allow users to leave a negative review for a host after a bad experience. We left the place we booked immediately because we felt it did not correspond to what we were expecting based on description and pictures. After dealing with customer service to no avail, I wanted to leave a review so other people could be informed of the experience we had but the review link or button was no longer avilable on my profile. This has been reported by many other people on online forums and blogs. A lot of unfortunate experiences could be avoided if user were allowed to leave accurate reviews, no matter how negative they may be.

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