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At first, to Christine Compo-Martin, a retired teacher who lives in New Hope, Pa, the Expedia.com search results looked like a mistake.
As she queried the site for a hotel room in Philadelphia, she found properties without photos.
As it turns out, it wasn’t a site error.
Expedia had intentionally deleted the images in an effort to persuade her to book a different hotel. The practice, called “dimming,” involves deliberately minimizing a hotel’s appearance or ranking in an online agency’s results.
It’s the byproduct of a conflict between hotels, which want customers to book directly with them, and OTAs, which don’t want to be undercut by the hotels.
The dimming problem flickered to life this spring, after hotels won a series of court victories in Europe that effectively allowed them to offer lower rates on their own websites.
“Online travel agencies retaliated by dimming", Dori Stein, the chief executive of Fornova, said.
Expedia, Stein said, is the most prominent dimmer in the travel business, while Booking.com has lowered the rankings of some hotels but hasn’t removed their pictures. Booking did not respond to repeated requests for a comment. Expedia acknowledged that it is lowering the rankings of some hotels but said it was for the benefit of the customer.
“We want to make sure the hotels with the best rates and inventory are put first,” said Melissa Maher, a senior vice president at Expedia. “We’re doing it because we’re consumer-focused.”
Maher said dimming is not as straightforward as it sounds. Expedia’s search algorithm weighs several factors, including the room rate; customer ratings; how often the hotel turns away reservation-holding guests and sends them to another hotel; and the commission paid to the agency.
That’s not necessarily how customers see it. Dimmed hotels make an online travel agency’s search results look incomplete at best, buggy at worst.
As a practical matter, the top results on your favorite OTA may have longer descriptions with additional photos, but the properties shown may be more expensive. Lower-ranked hotels might be less expensive, but they might not have photos and their descriptions may be edited to a few sentences. In rare instances, dimmed hotels may not be bookable through the site.
No one except the travel agency doing the dimming knows why a hotel is chosen for the treatment. “From one day to the next, a hotel chain can go from 150 dimmed hotels to 80”, said Gino Engels, chief commercial officer for OTA Insight.
“They’re trying to hurt the hotel, but they don’t want to hurt it too much. If they do that, it will start to affect Expedia’s bookings. It’s just a bit of a political game,” Engels said.
“Dimming is unethical,” said David Rosner, the co-chief executive of SmarTours, a New York tour operator. That’s because the online agency is trying to trick its own customer into buying a more expensive hotel room. “This practice is similar to deceptive advertising in the sense that only those who read the fine print truly understand what they are buying.”
Dimming also exploits a public perception that the search results on online agencies are as unbiased as an Internet search engine. While many travelers believe an online agency will display the cheapest rates first in a relatively impartial way, the hard reality is that almost every part of the fare display is optimized for profit.
"It’s an open secret that OTAs trade higher search placement to hotels willing to pay higher commissions" said Jason Shames, the chief executive of Skipper, an online agency that specializes in group travel.