Why your Airbnb listing is not showing in search results
It may not feel like it, but Airbnb is now over 10 years old. Over that period it has accumulated more than 6 million active listings.
That’s a lot of listings. And for hosts like us, a lot of competition.
For most hosts, their listing interacts with the Airbnb marketplace in a fairly typical manner. The listing competes with hundreds of other listings in the area, and it shows up somewhere in the search results.
Some hosts find their listing rank high, some lower. But for a minority of hosts, their listing seems to have disappeared from search results altogether. It’s not on search results page 1, or 2, or 20, or 30.
Why is this happening?
If you’ve read my comprehensive SEO and listing improvement guides, chances are you already know enough to be able to piece together the answer.
If you haven’t read the above articles, don’t worry, I’m condensing them into this article to specifically address the issue of disappearing listings. If that’s what you want to fix, you can keep reading. Near the end I share a real story of how I rectified this issue.
I prefer to teach you how to fish instead of giving you a fish, so I need to back up a bit. I need to teach you the basics first, in order for you to understand the full nuance of why listings disappear and how you can rectify it.
The thing that is responsible for your listing not showing up in search results, is the same as the thing that ranks it. It’s the search algorithm.
Search algorithms work with its own data store called the search index, which is separate from a “normal” database.
Think of the search index as a “file cabinet” for a search algorithm.
Let’s put aside this little nugget of information. It’ll come in handy later.
Search algorithms rely on quality signals to determine which listings should be given an extra uplift in their ranking.
A search algorithm typically works with dozens of quality signals, but there are only three that are relevant to our topic at hand.
Bookings are a very strong quality signal, so much so that I don’t bother with other quality signals.
Search engineers like to use such a transaction-based quality signal for two reasons:
One, transactions are an accurate proxy for quality because they are initiated by humans, who are great at judging quality. In the case of Airbnb, it’s not easy for the algorithm to tell that a house is beautifully decorated, or if it’s priced well. But it’s much easier for the algorithm to deduce its overall quality based on the fact that humans like to book it.
Two, transactions are a much higher bar compared to other human-generated signals, due to its monetary nature. It doesn’t take much for someone to add a property to the Wishlist. It's a lot harder for them to part with hundreds of dollars to book it.
A booking only gets made after a huge monetary barrier is overcome. It is only logical that the algorithm is heavily influenced by bookings.
Non cancellation signal
A host who cancels a guest’s booking gets a strong negative boost.
This should not come as a surprise, seeing that a host-initiated cancellation is very damaging all round. It wrecks the affected guest’s itinerary. And it costs them time and money (and their peace) to find replacement accommodation.
For Airbnb, this causes brand damage and a possible permanent loss of patronage.
It is clear for all to see that Airbnb really wants to stamp out host-initiated cancellations. It dishes out a penalty of up to $1,000 USD for each booking cancelled by a host. It is very likely that a harsh penalty to punish the listing has also been programmed into the search algorithm.
The cancellation penalty (negative boost) sticks around for a while, but from my observation it’s not permanent.
Nevertheless, you should not risk it. Best to just never cancel a guest.
New listing boost
When a new listing is submitted to the Airbnb platform, it is essentially an empty vessel that carries no data.
Without any data, the search algorithm has no idea how good the new listing is. So it gives itself a few weeks or months to learn about the listing, by showing it prominently to humans at random times.
How people respond to the listing is captured and transformed into quality signals.
The new listing boost is technically not a quality signal, but it has the same effect. They both result in a listing getting pushed up in ranking.
There is a difference between the two, though. The new listing boost is temporary. The algorithm stops applying it after an initial “honeymoon” period.
Earlier in this article I did say that there are only three signals relevant to our strategy.
While that is true, I want to briefly explain two signals that will technically have an effect on your listing, but won’t be part of the strategy.
Reviews - Like bookings, reviews are a human generated signal, giving it high accuracy. For this reason search algorithms assign reviews a fairly significant weight. For Airbnb, reviews are undeniably a very good quality signal.
But I don’t pay much attention to them because they’re “downstream” from bookings. In other words, if you solve the problem of not getting bookings, you automatically solve the problem of lacking reviews. So it’s best to just focus on bookings.
Wishlist additions - Being added to Wishlists is another good signal, for the same reason as reviews: it involves human judgement.
Wishlist additions too are an automatic by-product of bookings, sort of. To get booked, you need to improve your physical B&B and your digital listing on Airbnb. Both should secure you some Wishlist additions.
Not all algorithms are equal. “Dumb algorithms” display a mostly fixed behaviour that doesn’t change much from search to search.
Let’s say I programmed a dumb search algorithm for a bike marketplace. If your bike was flagged as banned, then the algorithm would simply never include it in all search results.
A sophisticated algorithm is much more dynamic than that.
From my observation, Airbnb’s algorithm is not dumb. A listing may rank very low (or seemingly disappear) for one search, but appear later in another.
When a host claims that their listing disappears, it’s unlikely that it’s missing forever from all searches. Chances are, it gets shown sometimes to some people.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of search engines, let’s delve into the different scenarios for why your listing does not show up.
Missing from search index
Remember what I said about the search index? It is the “file cabinet” for a search algorithm.
If a record is not in the search index, the algorithm isn’t aware of it. The algorithm cannot return a record that it doesn’t know about.
If your listing is not showing up in search results, the first possibility is that it doesn’t make it into the search index somehow.
There’s not much that you can do about this.
A platform as large as Airbnb’s consists of multiple internal systems that talk to each other. It’s possible that your listing gets stuck inside that machinery for a short period.
This stuff is not uncommon. Engineers expect it. They put in place monitoring and failsafe systems to uncover stuck “messages” (data packets) and unstick them.
However, no system is perfect. There is a remote possibility that your listing is stuck without anybody or any monitoring system being aware of it.
You should contact Airbnb Support if your new listing hasn’t shown up for a few days.
Penalised for cancelling
In this scenario, the algorithm penalises your listing because you have cancelled a guests booking somewhat recently. I don’t know exactly how long this penalty will last for. It could be a year.
We’ll discuss the fix further down.
In this final scenario, nothing is wrong with your listing per se. No penalty has been applied, nor does it fail to reach the search index.
Your listing simply scores poorly in terms of quality signals. Outranked by many listings with better scores, it appears to be missing from search results.
What happened was you didn’t prepare to wean your listing off the new listing boost. Now that it no longer benefits from the temporary boost, it doesn’t have enough booking history to stand on its own legs.
This is why it’s crucial that new hosts don’t waste the new listing boost “honeymoon period”.
A few years ago I saw a new Airbnb listing near mine with an amazing potential. Brilliant location, nice views, spacious, decent price, etc. It’s got all the ingredients for a successful B&B.
It had 0 bookings and 0 reviews at the time. It only ranked high in search results because of the new listing boost.
Curious, I clicked to view the listing in full. It quickly became apparent that the hosts were very inexperienced.
The listing title and description were very plain. The photos were worse. There were a mix of portrait and landscape photos. Most of them were dark and blurry. I could tell that they were taken hastily with a mobile phone.
Mobile phone photos can work, as long as you carefully manage the lighting, angle, and colour contrast. They didn’t.
The listing didn’t do the actual property justice at all, so it only managed 1 booking over the entire boost period. Once it was over the listing fell off the cliff. It just “vanished”.
The way out of the last two scenarios - penalised or poor signals - is the same: you need to get your listing booked.
For the purposes of guiding you through the fix, I’m going to assume that your problem is poor signals due to low bookings.
If your problem is the cancellation penalty, my explanation in this section applies to you just the same. There is a difference in the degree of difficulty, though. Recovering from the cancellation penalty requires a lot more work.
Let’s use an analogy to help paint a clearer picture: Ranking well on Airbnb is like a self-powering machine. If it’s off to a good start, it’ll just keep going. Initially the machine starts with a few bookings. This causes the listing to be found relatively easily in search results. This causes it to be booked again. And on it continues.
Airbnb gives everyone a fair chance at getting this machine going, through the new listing boost. Once the boost period is over though, Airbnb offers no further help. This is where you currently find yourself. The boost period is over. The machine is dead. And you need to kick start it again.
Airbnb is not facilitating bookings for your listing anymore. You have to do it yourself.
The solution can be split into two broad categories:
On-platform improvements - Changes to your Airbnb listing that improve its clickthrough and conversion rates
Off-platform improvements - Work outside of the Airbnb platform that improves your property.
I’ll discuss off-platform improvements first, seeing that they’re arguably more important than on-platform.
Improve the property itself - Behind every successful Airbnb is genuinely good accommodation. Notice I said good, not expensive. An inexpensive property can be turned into a very good B&B.
What does good mean?
It means you fix obviously nasty problems. Scrub disgusting bathroom tiles. Replace sagging couch. Clean mouldy areas. Repair damaged air conditioner.
It also means that everyday amenities are well provided. Furniture is solid (or even nice). Consumables are good quality and well stocked. Bedding and towels are fresh and clean.
Finally you want to go above and beyond in a couple of areas that will really “wow” your target segments (see below).
Pick target segments - Target a few narrow segments instead of “everybody”. Being better than your competitors is a lot easier this way. Being targeted will give you clear, actionable ideas for improvements.
Let’s use a hypothetical example. Imagine you have a house in a seaside town. Every Airbnb host is targeting all beach goers, which is too broad of a target segment.
Analyse your property. Understand its strengths and weaknesses. Analyse the different types of guests who visit your town. Use them as a guide for which segments to target.
Let’s say that your house is further inland, whether older houses and buildings are situated. It’s not right at the beach where the new and cool bars are. In short, your place would struggle to attract the younger demographic.
Maybe you’ll be better off leaning into your house’s attributes by targeting older travellers. Focus on providing amenities and comfort to them. For example:
- Provide softer beds. Mention it in your listing.
- Highlight how close your house is to historical places or fine dining restaurants.
- Highlight the fact that your single-level house has no stairs.
Chasing a smaller target audience may seem like a strange strategy, but it’s effective. I’ll share a real story about how I applied this successfully further down.
Get bookings for your listing - This is a very crucial part of your recovery strategy, but unfortunately there’s no easy way to achieve it. You’ll have to hustle and develop a bit of a thick skin. Some ideas include:
- Persuading friends and family to have their holiday at your B&B instead of going interstate or overseas
- Partnering with local businesses (exchange brochures)
- Getting promoted by local media (newsletters, local Facebook groups and travel sites)
- Promoting your Airbnb on social media such as Instagram
The texts, photos, and settings of your listing have a real impact on how well interests convert into bookings.
I’ve covered it at length in another article. Here’s the link to jump straight into the relevant section.
Your listing not showing up in Airbnb search results is a pretty extreme situation.
Applying the aforementioned on-platform and off-platform improvements may only half fix the problem. Your listing may be picking up steam too slowly.
In that scenario you’ll need to take drastic actions to give your listing an extra push. These are things that may not be sustainable in the long run, but are necessary to turn things around in the short term:
Better checkin and checkout times - Many hotels and Airbnbs require guests to checkout at 10am. Can you beat that? 11am checkout time would be amazing. That would allow your guests to sleep in and leave the accommodation at leisure.
What about checkin time? Can you do better?
For a large house that requires a lot of cleaning, this won’t be easy to pull off. But see if you can make it work with your cleaner. You may want to incentivise your cleaner to process your first 10-15 bookings quicker.
Pick the most permissive Cancellation Policy - The most lax Cancellation Policy is Flexible, which allows guests to cancel 1 day before the stay and still receive a full refund. This is unlikely to be sustainable long term, but you may need it to make your Airbnb super compelling.
Turn on Instant Booking - I’ve always had Instant Booking on. It’s one of those things that are always good to have all the time.
Lower the Nightly Price - Money is probably the single biggest barrier to getting booked, so why not lower it. Mind you though, you don’t want to lower it so much that it makes prospective guests suspicious. You still need to pick a believable price point.
No Minimum Stay - Some Airbnbs would hardly make any profit if they allowed single night bookings. Yours may fall into this category. Even if that’s the case, you should consider having no minimum stay until your listing has started to rank better.
Super serve your guests - The aim here is to impress them so much that they tell their friends to book your B&B. Leave a personalised welcome note. Provide gourmet baked goods from a local bakery. Leave some fruit or flowers that are freshly picked from the garden. Guests love personal touches!
Narrow your target segment even further - If you’re getting very desperate, you may have to deliberately target a small and invisible segment, and try and get bookings from this sub segment. See my story below.
How I fixed the issue of disappearing Airbnb listing
One day I was talking to friends of mine, an older Thai couple living in Thailand, about their recent retirement. Life in their newly built house was pretty quiet and uneventful.
Seeing that they were in a seaside town popular with tourists, I suggested that they rent out a private room on Airbnb, just to have something to do.
And they did. They created a semi decent Airbnb listing and managed to get a few bookings in the first couple of months. And then out of the blue their listing appeared to have stopped showing up in search results. Zero traffic and bookings since.
They were baffled by what was happening so they talked to me about it.
To me two things were obvious. First, it’s clear that the Airbnb algorithm applied the new listing boost technique, just like most search algorithms. Second, my friends’ temporary new listing boost had just expired.
I set out to help them.
My first step was to try and understand the competitive landscape and guest demographics. I went through reviews left by guests who stayed in that town.
I discovered that their property had a very significant weakness: it was not within walking distance to any beach, where the vast majority of travellers wanted to stay. They couldn’t compete with the many hundreds of beachfront apartments on Airbnb.
Their strengths were things that wouldn’t benefit most guests. They were a very kind and friendly older couple. They knew the town like the back of their hand. They made tasty food.
From my review analyses and conversations with my friends, I saw faint hints of a tiny segment that could be a great match for them. This was my hypothesis for them:
The average travellers were a poor fit for them. They were either seasoned travellers, or young people who just wanted the beach, or confident travellers who knew what to do. None of them would benefit from what my friends could offer.
But, there were young travellers from Asia who were not confident travellers, whose trip to Thailand was their first overseas holiday. They valued safety above things like beachfront location. They also valued local knowledge of places to go.
With that I asked them to update their listing to highlight their strengths: Stay with a friendly older couple. Get tips on how to sightsee safely. Find secret attractions only locals know about. Have freshly made delicious Thai breakfast every morning.
I also asked them to translate their description into a couple of Asian languages.
They didn’t have to wait too long before a booking arrived. It was from two Chinese uni students who were travelling overseas for the first time. My friends, who are lovely and earnest people, went out of their way to pick them up from the town’s central train station.
The students really enjoyed my friends’ hospitality and left a glowing review.
A couple of weeks later, another booking was made. It was a young Malaysian couple. My friends made sure they knew how to go to night markets safely, and informed them of unique places to check out. They too had a blast. Another glowing review.
More bookings followed. Two young travellers from China. A young man from Singapore. A family from Korea. They all left positive reviews, sometimes in their own language, leading to more bookings from similar demographics.
By this time, the self-powered Airbnb machine was well and truly running.
Not only that, my friends were getting bookings that originated from off-platform sources. People came through word of mouth and referral. Some guests even rebooked to stay with them again.
My friends’ success is one of my favourite Airbnb stories, because of how counter-intuitive it was.
Most people who want to grow their business think about bigger stuff, like an expansion.
For my friends, it was the total opposite. They succeeded through focusing on a very tiny slice of the market.
If you’re desperate to kickstart your Airbnb machinery, try the same thing. What’s the worst that could happen?