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Could reports of Airbnb blocking negative reviews hurt its transparency claims?

Airbnb has been accused of neglecting its user interface by blocking feedback from dissatisfied guests, raising concerns about the already-controversial company's accountability.

According to an article from The Times, the popular online homestay network?s Web site and application design is primarily at fault: users who leave their bookings early due to problems with their accommodation are met with messages treating the trip as if it had been cancelled before it started when they attempt to complain. The issue is a serious oversight for Airbnb? which has already courted a significant amount of negative attention due to a series of skirmishes with host cities? zoning laws? and could be the beginning of consumer-side friction for a company which relies on transparency more than most.

?The company can benefit from the additional awareness, consideration or sales that come along with the evaluations in exchange for the guarantee to provide an authentic and safe forum where those evaluations can be read,? said Jeff McCollum, director of content integrity and insights at Bazaarvoice

Suspicious activity
The Times report came after many came forward after similar experiences with Airbnb.

Many users shared stories of inadequate accommodation, broken locks and missing amenities on what they saw were five star listings. After cutting their trips short due to the deceptions, the users were blocked from warning others about the listing by the site. 

Airbnb has gone as far as submitting comments under users? names that have cut their reservations short, posting automated messages that say, ?The host cancelled this reservation the day before arrival. This is an automated posting,? a message which appears on thousands of Airbnb listings.

The issue raises some doubt on the accuracy of five star bookings

These practices call into question the accuracy of many? if not all? of the user-generated ratings attached to Airbnb listings, and an analysis could even go so far as to touch on issues of ratings buoying through a process of discarding negative reviews.

He said, she said
With the mobile platform being a relatively new frontier for consumers, questions of trust and accountability still persist in a space where individuals are increasingly spending more of their time. 

The company will have to address the issue both internally and on social channels

Fixtures such as Apple?s App Store somewhat hedge against unethical maneuvering by subjecting app makers to rigorous standards before making their product available to the public, but if Airbnb?s case is any example, the measure may not be enough. 

Brands should be on the lookout for design flaws such as the one Airbnb customers have found that can diminish customer trust, an element of consumer relations not easily regained. Erasing negative feedback may be an appetizing move in the moment, but it evinces a shortsightedness that is not lost on the consumer when they get word of it through independent media outlets such as The Times. 

For Airbnb, which heavily relies on user-generated feedback to maintain its online ecosystem, any tampering with negative commentary? either intentional or inadvertent? is an especially egregious offense. Consumers should not have to wonder whether the five star listing they are considering earned its rating through quality or neglect.

Consumers are bringing their concerns about transparency in media and business ethics to the mobile space, and shrewd marketers are responding in kind. American Airlines and United airlines flyers are reaping the benefits of this new paradigm through an app called Frequent Flyer, which lets users earn miles through self-reported location-based processes (see story). 

And packaged seafood company Chicken of the Sea is also offering transparency in the buying process, upping its corporate responsibility efforts with a new mobile initiative that lets users scan one of its cans and learn information about its ingredients and origin source (see story). 

?The implicit social contract with any form of evaluative consumer-generated content (in mobile apps or otherwise) is as follows: the user of a product or service provides their unbiased evaluation of the service as an altruistic service to both the company who provides the product or service and to any potential consumer,? said Mr. McCollum. ?Furthermore, the potential consumer can read the unbiased accounts in exchange for their potential interest in or expenditure with the company. 

?By blocking negative reviews, a company breaches its part of this social contract.?