Dimming: How Expedia Was Altering Your Hotel Search Results

person booing hotel on tablet_dimmingSearch-result bias—you’ve heard us talk about it before. It’s something that goes on behind the scenes deep within a travel site’s algorithm. It changes the way that hotels are sorted and displayed in your searches. Ultimately, it affects which hotels you see and where you will end up booking.

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) sometimes don’t disclose everything that affects their search order, but there is speculation that how much a hotel pays the OTA in commission is an important factor. Essentially, some OTAs are biasing their search results by showing you the hotels that make them the most money first. To the average OTA user, this is usually hard to spot. But a few years ago, it got the public’s attention.

In 2016, Expedia was caught making some hotels look less attractive on purpose in order to steer customers away from booking those properties. This example of search-result bias is called “dimming,” and here’s what happened.

What Is Dimming?

In the online travel world, “dimming” refers to when a travel search site deliberately alters the appearance of a hotel listing in order to make it look less appealing. In some examples from 2016, it looked something like this:

mock up of hotel booking site dimming

Notice how the Fairfield Inn listing has no photos. The listing also doesn’t mention how many reviews it’s received. The site has also chosen not to display any of their colorful “Booked in the last 3 hours” tags on this listing either. (We’re actually relieved by this last part… Many OTA sites use urgency marketing tactics like that to trigger your FOMO and get you to book faster. We’re not a fan of tactics like that, but in this case of dimming, it clearly makes the listing stand out less against the others.) Because of these modifications, the average user would likely scroll right past the Fairfield Inn listing and keep searching.

Who Was Getting Dimmed?

Many travel experts viewed dimming as an OTA response to hotel chains offering lower rates to members of their hotel loyalty programs. Hilton, Marriott, and IHG—among others—do this to encourage more direct bookings rather than lose bookings to OTA sites like Expedia and Booking.com. Members of hotel loyalty programs can often get discounted rates for their hotel stays but only if they book directly on the hotel’s site. In order to stay competitive, hotel chains do not give OTA sites access to these lower loyalty member rates.

It was common speculation that OTAs used dimming as a retaliatory response to the hotels offering these lower loyalty rates on their sites. Many of the examples found of OTAs dimming hotel listings were of properties that belong to those major hotel chains. In our example above, Fairfield Inn is owned by Marriott. At the time that dimming was at its peak, OTA Insight, a data platform for the hospitality industry, estimated that about 40% of the dimmed hotels belonged to one of the top five global hotel chains.

Coincidence? We think not.

What This Means for You

The publication of a Washington Post article titled, “How Online Travel Agencies Are ‘Dimming’ Results on Hotel Searches” in July 2016 brought dimming into the spotlight. Previously, hotel chains were stewing in silence, helplessly watching as their properties got unfair treatment on some OTA pages. But the Washington Post article brought it to the attention of the public.

Hotel listings that have been dimmed looked, to many users, incomplete. Some users would just glaze right over the listing and move on; others assumed that it was a bug with the site. Still, there were others who grew skeptical:

“I use sites like Expedia because I want all of the information up front at once. I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks at [dimming] and thinks, ‘What are they hiding?’”

– Christine Compo-Martin, Expedia site user, in an interview with Washington Post

OTAs tout themselves as being comparison-shopping sites designed to help customers see their options. Therefore, many travel searchers are under the impression that OTA search results are organic. But this illusion breaks down with dimming. Searchers might be missing out on hotels that would fit their needs—or even have a lower rate—because of OTAs altering their search results.

What Happened Next?

About two months after the Washington Post publication, Expedia announced that they were ending the strategy of dimming. They called it an “experiment” but claimed that it was not improving the overall customer experience. That was a relief, but it makes us wonder: What other “experiments,” known or unknown, are biasing the OTA search experience?

These days, “Promoted” and “Sponsored” listings are commonly peppered throughout many OTA results, revealing that search results on these sites have truly become a pay-to-play game. Travelocity and Hotels.com admit that what they are paid may influence their search results. 

Enter, Roomkey.

We don’t like to brag—OK, maybe we do—but Roomkey is different. We’re not an OTA. We don’t try to pressure-sell you with confusing urgency messages, and we certainly don’t bias our search results. How much we are paid for a booking does not impact our sort order at all. In fact, our default is to sort hotels by their distance to the center of your destination city. You can override that by sorting by price, another common and unbiased sort option.

At Roomkey, our motto is, “No tricks. Just travel.,” and we mean it. We believe in a simple and honest hotel search experience. We also believe in cutting out middle-man sites like OTAs who take your booking (and their commission) for themselves. When you search on Roomkey.com and select a hotel, we redirect you straight to the hotel’s website where you’ll complete your booking. All your information and reservation details will remain with the hotel itself.

Roomkey provides an unbiased way to search and compare your hotel options across thousands of hotels. Even better, our site is the only hotel comparison site that allows you to compare the discounted rates that hotels offer their loyalty members. OTAs can’t do that for you! Search on Roomkey; book with the hotel. That’s how we make travel work for you.