Want to host on Airbnb? Better smile in your photos, Israeli researchers say
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Want to host on Airbnb? Better smile in your photos, Israeli researchers say

Vendors on rental site are judged based on their attractiveness and image quality, in study with implications for wider sharing economy

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

An Airbnb office in Toronto. (Wikimedia/Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler/CC0 public domain)
An Airbnb office in Toronto. (Wikimedia/Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler/CC0 public domain)

The appearance of Airbnb hosts, and the photos they use on the platform, have a significant impact on their success in renting out their properties, Israeli researchers found in a recent study.

A host’s gender, attractiveness and facial expression, and the type of photos they use, all influence their perceived trustworthiness, and in turn, how much they make from the rental platform.

Personal photos are crucial to online sites that cater to the sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, since users need to judge a stranger’s trustworthiness based on scant information. And they have been found to have an effect on the economic transactions provided by the platforms.

Past research has shown that people tend to make quick judgments about strangers’ traits based on a brief exposure to their photos, and these judgments play a role in decision-making.

Airbnb hosts who use a personal photo are rated more highly, and hosts who are judged as more trustworthy can charge more and have more popular listings.

The research by professors Eyal Ert and Aliza Fleischer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Environmental Economics and Management was published in December in the peer-reviewed journal Psychology & Marketing.

“Visual trustworthiness is king in the Airbnb arena. Hosts who are perceived as trustworthy enjoy higher prices and more frequent rentals than do hosts with less-trustworthy photos,” Fleischer said.

The researchers set out to determine what kind of photos Airbnb hosts use, and what photo characteristics influence their trustworthiness on the platform.

The researchers also looked at the characteristics of the images themselves, by taking into account how many people were in the photos, the prominence of the host’s face and the quality of the photograph.

They looked at the profiles of 640 hosts in Stockholm, Sweden. Their photos were judged by Americans to mimic Airbnb’s focus on international tourism. Each photo was rated by 20 participants who were paid a small fee.

The participants were asked to rank each host’s trustworthiness, attractiveness, gender, age, expression and how visible their face was in the image. They did not include race since the hosts were overwhelmingly white.

About half the photographs were women, 68% of all hosts were smiling, in 87% of the images the face was clearly visible, and 87% of the images had no other people in them. The subjects judged the average age to be 33.5 years. The subjects did not rate the photos as being high quality, giving them an overall quality rating of 6.19 out of 10.

More attractive people were deemed more trustworthy, and women were seen as more trustworthy than men, and as more attractive. It didn’t matter whether the raters were men or women, the researchers said.

Smiling boosted both trustworthiness and attractiveness. Older people were viewed overall as slightly more trustworthy, even though they were also seen as less attractive.

Photos with more people in them, and higher quality photos, made the hosts appear more trustworthy and more attractive.

Facial prominence, for example whether someone was wearing sunglasses or a hat in their photo, did not have an effect, contrary to the researchers’ expectations.

Smiling young women were deemed the most attractive, and smiling older women were seen as the most trustworthy.

The researchers suggested that the ideal photo would be a high resolution, multi-person image of an older, smiling woman.

The researchers speculated that a low quality image could suggest the host is inattentive to detail, and a group photo could make people think they’re social and friendly.

They said that, despite the influence photos have on success for the platform, most hosts seemed unaware of their significance, based on the data.

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