Airbnb bets on local with user-generated guidebooks and new neighborhood/home matching

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Last November, we reported on how Airbnb appeared to be experimenting with ways to expand beyond its role as a P2P marketplace for renting private accommodation, to “experiences” — including more detailed local guides and a prepaid card to spend money once you’re there. Now, as Airbnb continues to expand, covering some 34,000 cities and 2 million properties, it is making good on some of this.

In a new app update today, Airbnb is launching a series of local Guidebooks collating tips written by local hosts and power users, and it is debuting a new system and algorithm to help learn about what you like to better match you with both homes and specific neighborhoods.

The Guidebooks will start with 3 million tips from 35 cities, while Neighborhood Matching initially will cover 23 of Airbnb’s most popular cities: Austin, Bangkok, Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Buenos Aires, Lake Tahoe, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Miami, New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro (pictured above), Rome, San Francisco, Seoul, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Venice and Washington, DC. Airbnb is formally announcing the services at an event in San Francisco (we’ll update this post as details become available).

Part of the reasoning both for offering more tips on places and suggesting various neighborhoods to people is that Airbnb wants to make sure that as its platform grows, the long tail of inventory it has on its platform doesn’t sit idle while would-be guests turn away when they balk at the prices for homes in prime locations, or simply find everything in those choice areas to be sold out. Some three-fourths of all inventory on the app already is outside of city center districts.

Airbnb is spinning this somewhat differently, and if you give them the benefit of the doubt, there is something more charming about visiting a city like London and staying far from the maddening crowd (while still being close to the center of the action).

“The number one reason people chose to travel on Airbnb is they want to live like a local. They don’t want to be tourists stuck in long lines, fighting with the crowds to see the same thing as everyone else,” said Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “Our hosts offer more than just generic hospitality — they welcome travelers from around the world into their communities. Today is the start of an exciting journey to help people not just go somewhere, but truly live there.”

The developments come at an interesting time for Airbnb, which has raised $2.4 billion in funding and is reportedly now valued at $25.5 billion. As rivals get snapped up by bigger hotel and travel companies, Airbnb is pushing to develop a bigger business that can stand on its own and justify those very lofty numbers (to say nothing of the many charming lofts owners are hoping will get filled up with visitors).

On the financial front: “No updates to give” was the short response I got when I asked for the latest on the pre-paid payment services we spied last year. Interestingly, we’ve seen that Airbnb earlier this month acqui-hired the team from Blockchain payments startup ChangeCoin, but with no specific plans for payment services.

“We are thrilled to bring some members of the ChangeTip team on as a part of Airbnb and joining the engineering team working on building our infrastructure,” a spokesperson tells us. “We are not acquiring the assets of the company, nor do we have any plans to incorporate Bitcoin into the Airbnb ecosystem.”

Separately, Bloomberg reported a couple of days ago that Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky said it was experimenting with add-on travel services that users could book and buy through the platform, so you should definitely keep watching this space.

Airbnb App v3Turning back to today’s news, Airbnb says that the bespoke matching service will give users a way of setting their preferences for homes that will be marked in the form of a “conversation” (which, with the rise of bots, is very much the theme of the moment).

While this will help find homes right when you are looking for them, there is machine learning built into the app to get smarter about what it is that you like to make better suggestions to you each time you use the app. These cover not just kind of accommodation, but types of neighborhoods and prices.

“Outside of the explicit filters travelers chose as a part of the matching process, we have sophisticated machine learning algorithms that tailor search to find the perfect place,” a spokesperson told me.

“As travelers look at individual listings, its algorithms come up with additional places people might like that are similar — we look at things from room types, number of guests, how many times you’ve viewed a listing, what value you are looking for, a listing similarity model, among many factors. As we’ve tested these machine learning models throughout the past several months, and will continue testing them, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in successful bookings.”

The neighborhood feature works in much of the same way. Covering some 691 specific areas within 23 cities, the idea is to try to introduce you to more areas that you might not have originally considered.

The guidebooks, meanwhile, appear to be the fruition of the “experiences” that Airbnb started to collect last year. These are described as “passports” to places from locals (or others who have visited).

It puts Airbnb into competition with services like TripAdvisor and Yelp, and it will be interesting to see if users are interested enough to continue referring to their Airbnb apps throughout their trips as a result of this. More importantly, it helps to lay the groundwork for whatever other potential services Airbnb chooses to add in the future.

Airbnb is also doing some aesthetic and marketing moves around this latest update. They include a big brand campaign that it will launch across TV and other platforms to raise its profile. It says there also is a new Design Language System that will be underpinning the company’s platform going forward.