Airbnb May Sniff Out Crosslisters

While Airbnb’s patent could catch scammers, it may have unintended consequences for hosts trying to get their listings in front of as many eyes as…

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

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Airbnb wants to find out if you’re renting out that spare room on Vrbo, too. 

The short-term rental company filed a patent application for a “cross-listed property matching” system. Airbnb’s system compares the images in hosts’ property listings on its sites to that of other vacation rental sites to find out if a host is trying to rent their property in more than one place. 

Here’s how it works: This tool takes listings from competing vacation rental sites, first comparing the images in those listings to identify “statistically sufficient similarity” to those on Airbnb’s site. In some examples, this process is done either partially or entirely by a machine learning model trained to categorize images into different areas of a house, such as kitchens, bedrooms or pools. 

This system may decide which images to compare to one another based on geographic region, storing all listing photos of a certain region in a database that’s analyzed consistently for duplicate listings. If doubles are found, they might be “removed, flagged, or filtered.” 

The filing claims that this system can find cross-listings in situations where a host may use different angles for photos on different platforms, and where they might use different addresses, contacts or descriptive information. 

Airbnb noted that hosts may cross-list their rentals on multiple platforms to reach as many customers as possible, even if their listing is “a unique or scarce product,” but that a platform may want to know when this occurs to “understand its own product inventory, optimize its fees, obtain industry knowledge, and the like.”

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A tool like this that constantly surveils for double-posted listings could help Airbnb crush scammers. In particular, this could quash so-called “bait-and-switch” scams, in which a guest doesn’t get the unit that was advertised in the listing. 

While Airbnb itself offers certain scam protections, it can’t control what happens on other short-term rental listing sites, so this may be an attempt to cover its back. Or given the patent’s mention of obtaining “industry knowledge,” making “effective marketing decisions” and fee optimization, another likely application of this tech is to help figure out how it can undercut competition. 

But this patent’s system could have unintended consequences for hosts. If an Airbnb host isn’t able to rent out their listing on its platform, they may try posting on alternatives, such as Vrbo, 9Flats or Booking.com, to try and get their rental in front of as many eyes as possible. And as Airbnb’s growth slows down, missing analyst’s expectations for nights and experiences booked during the second quarter in August, cross-posting might be key for hosts to get their spaces booked out. 

While this tech could catch scammers posting fake rentals, cracking down on cross-posted content with punishment of “removed, flagged, or filtered” posts as this patent suggests could cut off hosts at the knees.