When online accommodations marketplace Airbnb first launched years ago, many users were skeptical. The service, which lets users rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to guests, constantly faced the same reaction: Would you really want a stranger staying in your home?
Fast-forward: Airbnb is rapidly becoming mainstream, boasting more than 4 million users, who have notched millions of bookings at about 250,000 property listings around the world. But despite that success—Airbnb is also said to have annual revenue now in nine figures—improving trust on the service remains core to the startup's mission. Toward that end, today Airbnb introduced "Verified Identification," a tool designed to ensure that a user's online identity matches his or her offline identity. In an age of clinically insane YouTube commenters and fake Twitter handles and privacy snafus, when anonymity on the web is commonplace, it's a tough nut to crack. But Airbnb believes it will help improve trust and security in the so-called sharing economy. "We feel very strongly that anonymity has no place in the future of Airbnb," says Airbnb spokesperson Jakob Kerr. "We think this is definitely the direction the entire industry is heading in."
In order to get verified, Airbnb users must go through a few steps to sync their online and offline IDs. First, users must authenticate their accounts with either Facebook or LinkedIn; alternatively, if they have three preexisting positive reviews, Airbnb considers the online portion of the process satisfied. Next, they must confirm their offline identity by either scanning a government-issued ID, or by answering a series of questions, "similar to what you'd see during a credit check," Kerr says, such as entering the last four digits of your social security number. If the offline and online identities match, a guest or host will be verified. "We acknowledge that this is an extra step of friction for some of our users, but we think the reward is worth it," Kerr says.
At start, Airbnb will be requiring 25% of its users to go through the process in order to make a reservation, though Kerr says the ultimate goal is to reach 100%. (Users can also voluntarily verify their accounts.) It's yet another instance of a trust feature the company has worked to implement since its much-covered PR fiasco in mid-2011, when a host's apartment was ransacked by a guest. Since then, the company has made a substantial improvements to its security, including implementing 24/7 customer support and adding a $1 million insurance guarantee underwritten by Lloyd's of London. Verified identifications, says Kerr, "is another piece of information users can take advantage of when deciding who to transact with on Airbnb, and who they feel comfortable staying with or hosting." The insight came, he adds, from learning that hosts would sometimes ask guests in person to see their passport, in order "to make sure you're the same person as you booked as."
It's a problem many services have worked to solve. Facebook and LinkedIn would argue each company has a better and more accurate people database than the other; Twitter has made a substantial effort to verify celebrities and luminaries who use the service; and a whole slew of sharing economy startups, including RelayRides and Zipcar, depend on a fundamental trust between their users to function. But Kerr contends Airbnb is uniquely positioned to attack this issue, especially considering its service relies so heavily on online and offline interactions, as well as a blossoming peer-to-peer review system.
Could Airbnb one day become a player in user authentication? An endless number of services use LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook log-in authentication to verify its users; perhaps Airbnb, especially within the sharing economy, could serve a similar role for third parties. Kerr, however, says it's too early to say whether that will happen.
"It's a little premature to go down that road, since we're just launching this now," he says. "But I don't know what the future will hold."
[Image: Flickr user Panoramas]