The New Airbnb Focuses On Pretty Pics Rather Than Searches

The move reflects a growing trend in web design these days: What you’re searching for isn’t nearly as important as what tastemakers and friends have already found.

For the past several years, an army of 3,000 professional photographers has shot more than 1 million pictures for Airbnb, the online crash-pad marketplace. Now the startup is unleashing those images–“arguably one of the largest repositories of interior photography on the planet,” according to cofounder Joe Gebbia–to inject its service with a more visual DNA.


Today, Airbnb–which we recently named one of our 50 Most Innovative Companies–unveiled a completely redesigned version of its site that showcases these beautiful, high-res property images and emphasizes discovery. Visually intensive like Pinterest, and socially curated like a Spotify playlist, the designers behind Airbnb 2.0 hope its new aesthetic appeal and features–such as user wish-lists, staff and guest picks, thematic catalogues–will boost bookings on the 200,000 active listings the service has in 192 countries. “For the first time, we’ve shifted from being search-based to browse-based,” says Gebbia, who also serves as Airbnb’s chief product officer. “We’ve finally surfaced all this amazing content, which for the longest time was hidden behind search.”

The allure of Airbnb has always been its property listings: Users not only rent out their spare rooms and apartments, but their castles, igloos, and tree-houses. The upgraded homepage, which used to feature nothing more than a search box and basic slide show of properties, now highlights Airbnb’s most popular listings. Forget the drop-down menus and calendar boxes; visitors are now greeted by wide-screen-spanning banner properties–say, of beach-side villas in Indonesia and Iceland, or studio apartments in Paris or Buenos Aires.

Below, the site shows off its latest feature, wish lists, staff- and user-generated property collections curated by theme: dream vacations, honeymoons, architectural gems. Organized in a wish-you-were-here-postcard-like layout with infinite scrolling, the “design let’s you get completely immersed–lost in the unique properties,” says Airbnb UX designer Shaun Modi, an experience many startups are adopting of late, from The Fancy to Foursquare.

The new, image-heavy homepage.

The idea is to encourage “aspirational travel,” according to Gebbia. In other words, by preemptively showcasing properties you might expect to find in Condé Nast Traveler–but at Craigslist prices–Airbnb has started to answer the question, Where can I go?, as Gebbia explains, before having to ask a search engine, Where do I want to go? These wish-lists are shareable too, integrated with Facebook’s open graph; Airbnb has also begun featuring curated lists from influentials such as Yves Béhar, Jack Dorsey, Ashton Kutcher.

But the true centerpiece of this redesign is the photography itself–a validation of the design strategy Airbnb’s cofounders first tested out while at Y Combinator, when they visited various host listings in the service’s early days and found that snapping high-res images themselves nearly doubled bookings.

An example of the curated lists that now dominate the site.

The startup would go on to offer its users free professional photography services from a growing network of paid freelancers. But what may have once seemed like a dot-com-era luxury to some has become a serious source of revenue for Airbnb, and further proof of the value of design. Travelers are two and a half times more likely to book listings that feature professional photography–a figure which Airbnb only expects to go up with its new design.


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.