OTA ranking factors: how to influence your position in Airbnb/Vrbo search results

A property’s ranking means how high up it is shown for a search on an OTA (Airbnb/Vrbo/Booking/Tripadvisor), assuming it meets all the criteria of the search query.

There are various factors at play to determine how well you rank, but they can all be boiled down to one basic question:

How much money does the OTA make from you?

The two key measurements to determine that are:

Clickthrough rate: this is the percentage of times people click through to your ad when it is presented to them in a search result.

Conversion rate: this is the percentage of people who make a booking, having clicked through to your ad.

Note that when you look at where your ad ranks on an OTA you are not seeing what others will see, the result is affected by what is known about the searcher.

Let’s assume that you have done everything you possibly can to make your ad as perfect as it can be. Here are the other ranking metrics that determine your position in a search result:

1. Instant booking - turn it on!

OTAs want all listings to be instant book, and soon enough you won’t have the choice. So you may as well bite the bullet and turn on instant booking now, it will give you a boost in the rankings.

2. Accept bookings quickly

Assuming you haven’t turned on instant booking, the more you accept bookings, and the quicker you do it, the better your ranking. At the very least you have to respond to a booking or other enquiry within 24 hours, but bear in mind some of your competition (those that are not instant book) will be responding within minutes.

3. Don't cancel bookings

Cancelling a booking will have a negative effect, although you get some leeway if you’re a Superhost or equivalent. If you repeatedly don’t accept bookings that meet your booking criteria you will become invisible or even dropped entirely. This obviously means you have to make sure your calendar is always up to date.

4. Make your rates competitive

You may think you can set whatever rates you darn well please, and you can, but the OTA’s algorithm has its own opinion and if your rates are higher than the competition you will be less visible than them.

5. Good reviews are essential

The more of them the better. If you use all 4 OTAs and rent evenly between them you are diluting your reviews on any one OTA. That will cost you, each OTA wants your loyalty.

6. High-quality content

It’s not clear how something subjective would be measured by an algorithm but Vrbo say that your content is key. That means posting the maximum number of photos allowed (making them ‘high-quality’); make sure you select all your amenities, travellers on average select 7 amenities in a filtered search; try to add amenities, for example allowing pets is more important when staycations are more popular; keep your content current by updating photos and description.

7. Cancellation policy

This is not mentioned by Vrbo as a ranking metric but you can bet your bottom dollar/euro/pound that the more flexible your cancellation policy the more your ad will be boosted in the search results, especially in Covid times.

8. Show availability far ahead

Not mentioned as a ranking metric but just in case, it is good practice to have rates and availability at least 2 years ahead. It’s easy to forget to add next year’s rates until summer, autumn,… Christmas? Because OTAs like an active owner, even if there are no changes to make to your calendar it may be worth going in there and making a change once a week. You could block off a low-season period and then come back a week later and unblock it. At the very least, log in to your OTA account regularly, as the time you spend on the OTA is noted.

9. Become a Superhost/Premier Partner/Genius

On Airbnb and Vrbo you reach this status automatically when you satisfy their criteria for a certain period. For example, to be an Airbnb Superhost you have to have an average review rating of 4.8, response rate of 90%, 10 completed stays in a year, and cancellation rate below 1%. For Vrbo it is a little easier, in a 1-year period they require 90% booking acceptance, under 5% cancellation, 4.3 average rating, 5 bookings, and 3 reviews.

So this is again about loyalty because the more OTAs you use the harder it will be to get the qualifying number of stays in a year for each one. Having this status is not explicitly a ranking metric, but let’s make a wild assumption that there is a virtuous circle going on here and you are rewarded for your doing everything right. Also bear in mind: some travellers will select Superhost/Premier Partner etc. as a search filter, so they will never see your property if you are not in the club.

Booking.com even has a Visibility Booster, a nifty and worrying idea that allows you to boost your ranking for certain dates and to certain countries, by increasing the commission you are willing to pay. This could also be used as a short-term strategy if you are failing to get enough interest on booking.com – pay more in commission to boost your ranking, which will mean more people looking at your ad, and hopefully more conversions. You can then turn off the Visibility Booster and benefit from the natural effects of your ranking boost, which is to say more bookings, resulting in maintaining a higher ranking.

Why is this Visibility Booster worrying? At the moment we have a level playing field, much like Google used to be as a search engine before it filled the first page of results with ads. Now Google results are dominated by those with the deepest pockets. Similarly if all OTAs adopt this Visibility Booster concept, the search results will be a blind auction like Google Ads. Great for the OTAs, lousy for the property owner. In particular the individual property owner up against rental agencies and property managers, whose greater spend would make them more important clients for the OTAs.

Vrbo offer a tool called ‘Ranking Metrics’, which helps you understand what factors influence your visibility on their platform and how well you are performing against each parameter. Airbnb’s Host Dashboard has the same purpose.

You can get clues as to where you stand in the market with Vrbo’s Marketmaker, accessible from your dashboard. This can show you who your local competition is and show you where you are above and below the average rates for your property type and location.

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