Airbnb’s new categories and the problem with site taxonomy

Airbnb's new categories present an opportunity to grow non-branded traffic, but unfortunately, the company misses an important step.

Airbnb’s new categories and the problem with site taxonomy

In 2020, Airbnb’s market capitalization (number of outstanding shares multiplied by their value) was famously 3x of the largest hotel chain in the world, Marriott. Fast forward two years to the present, Airbnb is barely worth 40% more than Marriott and 30% less valuable than in 2021.

Market Cap Airbnb vs Hilton vs Marriott

Airbnb went public in December 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. For a travel company, the only worst time would have been in February 2020, right before the pandemic. In Q1 2022, Airbnb saw an all-time high for the number of nights booked and gross booking value per night. More people booked on Airbnb at a generally higher price. However, as travel is coming back in the spring of 2022, Airbnb’s value should have increased but was pulled down by the tech stock crash that hit every tech company from Netflix to Shopify.

Now Airbnb published a new Summer Release of features, one of which would have the power to accelerate growth: taxonomy.

Airbnb’s Summer Release

In its inaugural Summer Release, Airbnb announced new site categories (highlights mine):

Millions of people are now more flexible about where they live and work. But travel search has been the same for 25 years — you enter a location and dates into a search box. Most of us can only think of a few dozen cities to type into the search box, but there are Airbnbs in 100,000 towns and cities around the world.
That’s why we’re introducing a new way to search designed around Airbnb Categories, making it easy to discover millions of unique homes you never knew existed. When you open Airbnb, you’re presented with 56 categories that organize homes based on their style, location, or proximity to a travel activity. When you search for a destination, your search results are also organized by categories that are relevant to that destination. As you view different categories, the map intelligently zooms to show you where the homes are located.

[1]

Both sentences I highlighted are equally important and interesting.

Airbnb's new categories

First, Airbnb introduces 56 new categories that make it easier to find things. One problem with search is that you need to know what you’re looking for but you often don’t. Google, the world’s largest search engine, knows this and introduced a lot of features that inspire people and help them find things:

  1. Google Discover, a feed for the Google homepage or app on smartphones
  2. Refine/broaden this search, which shows you ways to modify your search query and get different results
  3. Related searches/people also searched for, more suggestions in the search results that help you find similar searches

The list goes on but the point is that search is only easy when you know what you want but noisy and messy when you’re exploring. Categories help users find things by grouping results. They also help aggregators rank in organic search and can drive a lot of SEO traffic.

Second, Brain Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) is completely right when he says that travel search hasn’t changed in the last 25 years, which is true for search in general. We’re still using the same old search box, but that is now changing.

At Google I/O 2022, Google presented how its vision of Ambient Computing is coming together. Part of it is breaking out of the search box and allowing users to provide inputs with their voice and smartphone lenses. Is it pure coincidence that two search-driven tech companies change the way users can find things? Maybe! But a well-timed coincidence.

The challenge with taxonomy

SEOs, UX designers, engineers, and PMs alike know that an optimal site taxonomy, the information architecture of a website, doesn’t exist.

A site’s taxonomy has huge implications on how its visitors behave and how much organic search it gets. A strong taxonomy makes information and products easier to find. The way information is connected can either meet user expectations or miss them and add a lot of friction in the process. Taxonomy can also have a profound impact on internal linking, which in return impacts organic ranks. So, it’s something you want to decide slowly.

There are really two broad types of taxonomies: hierarchical (think tree structure) and non-hierarchical (think hashtag structure). The former is more often used in ecommerce and integrator sites and has a clear distinction between categories and subcategories (home > furniture > chair). The latter applies more often to marketplaces. At G2, for example, we had a hashtag-like structure between categories (CRM- marketing automation - deep learning).

Both come with their own benefits and challenges. Unstructured taxonomies allow for more serendipitous exploration but slower pathfinding. Structured categories can fit the most common mental model users have but leave little flexibility for duplicates or exceptions.

Whatever model you chose, important for SEO is a clean URL structure that indicates hierarchies and how information is connected. And this is where Airbnb misses an opportunity.

The missed opportunity

Airbnb’s categorization makes it user-friendlier but not SEO-friendlier because it misses static URLs for these categories that would have allowed it to rank for more long-tail queries. In the announcement, Chesky mentions 56 categories in 100,000 cities, which comes down to at least 5.6M unique URLs. Add qualifiers like price or size and it might be even more! Airbnb could go after any long-tail variation  (e.g. "rv camping near boulder co") possible.

But clicking on the new categories doesn’t lead to clean URLs like airbnb.com/camping. It leads to a parameter URL that’s not indexed by Google. In other words, Airbnb is technically not set up to significantly grow its non-branded traffic with category pages. According to Semrush, Airbnb got 16M visitors through brand keywords and 2.5M through non-brand keywords in May 2022, a mere 13% of total traffic.

That’s still somewhat better compared to hilton.com and marriott.com but more in the line of 30% than 3x better.