Don’t Let Search Result Bias Keep You from the Perfect Hotel Room

hotel room_ota search result biasLet’s be honest. When was the last time you scrolled through more than a page or two of search results? Whether hunting down a five-speed blender or a new iPhone case, chances are good that you spun the scroll wheel of your mouse only two or three times before you found what you set out to purchase. Click. Done.

The same holds true for searching for hotel rooms. You’re used to not having to dig very deep before you find what you want, so you assume the same behaviors while booking travel. Unfortunately, the mega travel booking sites (also known as online travel agencies, or OTAs), like Expedia and Priceline, are onto this consumer behavior. They know the high value of the top search result spots on their site and essentially auction off these spots to the highest bidders. Wait, they do what?? Yes, this practice has become more and more common, and it’s making it a challenge for consumers like you to truly find the best hotel matches.

Mega Booking Sites Bias Their Search Results

First, let’s take a step back. OTA sites make money every time you book a hotel on their site. They take a percentage of the total price of your stay (sometimes as high as 25%) and put that money straight into their pockets. Some hotel chains (the big ones like Marriott and Hilton) are able to negotiate that 25% commission rate down, but smaller independent hotels aren’t usually as lucky.

Over time, OTAs figured out that their site visitors really only look at the first page or two of search results before booking. So, they strategically list hotels first that will make them the most money. Remember the high 25% commission rate that many independent hotels are stuck paying? That’s why you probably don’t recognize many of the hotels that you first see on these sites. They’re biasing their search results to fatten their wallets.

OTAs Also Favor the Highest Bidders

When hotels caught on to this biased search order practice, they confronted the OTAs. Their response? OTAs now let hotels pay them extra money to appear higher in their search results. All of this has led to a really wacky search order that favors hotels who pay the most. Worse, hotels offering lower nightly rates on their own websites have been further demoted in the search listings.

We felt deceived too. This is according to Impact of OTA Bias and Consolidation on Consumers, a research report written by Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. With a self-proclaimed goal of “fixing the Internet,” Edelman dug into these deceptive online practices, hoping to start a conversation and encourage favorable policy changes for consumers.  

A Need for Greater Transparency

Some booking sites have taken steps to become more transparent about their practices (but not really). For example, Expedia labels those properties who are forking over money to appear higher as “sponsored,” while Booking.com identifies them as “promoted”; see below. Sadly, it’s still not crystal clear to consumers that these hotels actually kicked over extra cash to the booking sites in order to appear above the fold on a computer screen.

screenshot from expedia.com
screenshot of booking.com

Worse, these sites are bandying about tags like “Top Booked,” “Great Value Today,” “Best Deal,” and even “Guest Favorite.” Are hotels with these tags paying the booking sites to be promoted in this way? We don’t know, but it makes us skeptical of the legitimacy of these statements. On Priceline, we were once pitched an “Instant Discount” for being a loyal customer, yet we’ve never once booked a room on that site. What’s up with that?

An Advocate for Travel Consumers

In Edelman’s paper, he expresses deep concern that limited competition in the online travel booking space is limiting consumer choices. As consumers of travel, many of us are under the guise that search results are chosen based on our keyed-in requirements. And of course we do—why should we think otherwise? In reality, we are presented with a set of paid search results that are not necessarily the best for us. Not cool.

Edelman goes on to outline policy changes that would keep booking sites from pulling the wool over our eyes and help us become more informed consumers. He advocates for industry changes that would keep booking sites from retaliating against hotels offering better rates on their own websites and presenting search results objectively to best reflect user hotel search interests.

A Refreshing Change

Roomkey is the restorative change that travelers need. We make searching for hotels as straightforward as we can. We don’t bump up or hide hotels based on how much or how little a hotel wants to pay for search placement. We don’t do that at all. We’re not about slippery sales tactics either. Instead, we keep it honest.

We were founded by the hotels themselves—something neither Priceline nor Expedia can claim. In fact, we’ve teamed up with more than 60 hotel chains of all sizes, including Wyndham Worldwide, Preferred Hotel Group, Hilton International, and more. We’re not a third party or a middleman. We’re a direct connection to more than 45,000 hotel properties across the globe.

To be clear, we’re not a booking site like Booking.com or Travelocity. We’re a true-to-life hotel search engine. Our number one goal is to help you find the perfect hotel room. And, (get this), we sort our results by proximity to city center. The top spots are never reserved for the highest bidders. Those spots are for hotels we actually think are best for you.

No Bold Claims or Noisy Distractions  

Now, we know you’re used to this since you’ve seen it time and again on the mega booking sites, and it’s only gotten worse over the years. But you won’t find any pressure selling tactics on Roomkey. No misleading gimmicks. No deceptive ploys to get you to book now (“In high demand—only 2 rooms left!”). Please don’t be disappointed. We want to give you a clean search experience, not a noisy or confusing one.

Unlike Booking.com, we won’t encourage you to click through to “See our last available rooms” (as if!). Unlike Travelocity, we won’t promote properties that offer “consistently exceptional service” as +VIP Access Hotels. We believe that all of our hotels are worthy of this distinction. We also won’t promote hotels as having a “Hot Rate,” like Hotwire does.

We Want You to Find the Best Hotel Room for You

Our goal at Roomkey is to make it easy for you to navigate the online hotel search scene to find the hotel that’s the right fit for you. Let us provide you with clear information to help you make informed decisions and, ultimately, find and book the right property for you and your family. Give us a go. We think you won’t miss those slippery sales moves for long.

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