Seth Porges / Forbes
Airbnb just got itself a bit of a makeover. The crowdsourced room-rental service—which just booked its 10 millionth guest night—unveiled a massive redesign today. The goal: To transform the search-based service into a browsable, seriously social, and downright beautiful (we’re talking National Geographic-grade travel porn here) travel site. “Airbnb 2.0”, cofounder Joe Gebbia called it on a recent conference call. And with good reason: Seemingly no scrap of code was left unturned with this revamp.
By placing an enormous emphasis on curated lists and its healthy catalogue of aspirational properties, the site also seems intent on upgrading its image from that of a classier version of Couchsurfing (at least in some users’ minds), to a Showcase Showdown-worthy vacation depot.
In other words, Airbnb is trying to transform itself from a tool you use for a planned trip to something you plan your trip around.
But how does the upgraded service stack up? I was given exclusive access to the redesign and its new features prior to today’s launch. I also happen to be a very active Airbnb host, as well as a frequent user of the site for my own travels. Basically: I know this site inside and out, and am in a unique position to review its upgrade.
Before today, Airbnb “Wish Lists” were about as basic as bookmarking gets. If you liked a property, you could add it to a list for later retrieval. Certainly a useful tool, but hardly a transcending (or, quite frankly, original) feature.
Now, Wish Lists have been promoted from bookmarking backburner to headliner. This upgrade is more than just an expansion of a feature. Virtually every inch of Airbnb is now built around Wish Lists, which are now designed to be the centerpiece for how users find new properties.
In essence, a Wish List is now a thematic grouping of properties that’s been curated by… somebody. Depending on which tab you click (“My Wish Lists”, “Friends”, or “Airbnb Picks”), that curator could be you, a pal, an Airbnb employee, or even a celebrity.
But what matters isn’t just that Airbnb gives you a bunch of lists of awesome properties—it’s how it shows them to you. From the homepage, scrolling down transforms Airbnb into a vaguely Pinterest-like display of properties and lists. There are also a series of maps of various cities, with the locations of popular properties pinned for easy access. Clicking a pin brings up the property. It’s an obvious and useful tool, and one that should prove very popular.
Of course, the purpose of all this is to solve what has long been Airbnb’s primary weakness: It’s been great if you know exactly where you want to go, but seriously lacking if you only have a vague idea of the what and where of your destination. By emphasizing Wish List browsing over search, Airbnb is trying to make it easy to find a great property, even if you don’t have a location in mind. It also begs you to save properties you love, in the hope that you may one day actually visit them.
The Airbnb-curated lists are, if nothing else, a ton of fun. Airbnb has long had “Collections” based around various locations or themes. But now they’ve seriously stepped up their game, with a emphasis on the aspirational. There are entire collections of Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright properties (though there are currently only three of these listed), a list of properties featuring infinity pools, ones built from old train cars, or homes on private islands (as Liz Lemon would say: “I want to go to there”). There are also a series of Wish Lists created by celebrities and “tastemakers,” as Airbnb calls them. These include Airbnb investor Ashton Kutcher (“Modern Getaways”), designer Yves Behar (“Designer Retreats”), and Modcloth founder Susan Gregg Koger (“Vintage-Inspired Abodes”).
It should also be said that the new Airbnb is seriously social. They’ve integrated Facebook Open Graph to show you friends’ Wish Lists, and to make it easy to share your own. Privacy settings let users make these lists private, or available to their friends or the general public.
One last point: Airbnb has accumulated what they are calling one of the largest collections of interior photography on the planet, including about a million professional property shots. From an aesthetic perspective, the new site is built around showcasing these photos, which are now bursting from every nook and cranny. “For first time, we’ve been able to surface all this amazing content we’ve been building over the last four years, but has been hidden behind search,” Gebbia says. And I gotta say: Thank goodness. The result looks more like a digital version of Architectural Digest than a traditional travel booking site. Photos are oh so big and beautiful, from the homepage (which is now dominated by enormous property shots) on in. As I said before: This is National Geographic-grade travel porn, and these photos alone should inspire some folks to rack up some frequent flier miles.
Though I have yet to book a trip using the new Airbnb, it seems to solve many of the problems that have plagued the site. Finding a getaway within a few hours of New York used to involve repeatedly typing in names of various towns in the Catskills and Poconos until I came across a suitable property. Now, I’ll be able to peek at friends’ lists of weekend getaways, and maybe even look at a map of the region with prime properties pinned.
I’m also excited to see how the company continues to evolve its new features. I can imagine a day when Airbnb shows me a pinned map of great places it thinks I would like, based upon a Netflix-like recommendation engine—or simply ones that might be easily accessible from my town. Still, upon initial review, Airbnb 2.0 gives travel-lovers a lot to love, and puts the site firmly in the front of the increasingly crowded crowd-sourced travel pack.