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Travel Website Optimization: Unpacking Booking.com & Its Use of Behavioral Economics

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Picture this. Your co-worker is planning a trip. First, she checks seven different discount fare aggregators to make sure she’s getting the best deal on her accommodations. She digs into reviews and ratings. She looks up their locations on Google Maps. Do they have free wi-fi? How many stars? What about proximity to good restaurants? Then, she has to double and triple-check make sure she has the correct dates and times before hitting that confirm button.

So. Many. Decisions.

Planning travel, whether for business or pleasure, requires a ton of decisions; some fun and exciting, others more stressful. For many consumers, it’s a long, complicated and potentially frustrating process.

But what if a travel services provider or booking website could make this series of small decisions simpler and easier using behavioral economics principles? Would it help potential travelers make decisions more quickly and more confidently? Would it make them more likely to return in the future?  

For guidance, we took a look at one of our founder Brooks Bell’s favorite websites: Booking.com.

Booking.com is a travel booking site that uses a wealth of behavioral economics tactics to help guide travelers and ease the decision-making process. In this blog post, we’ll tear down the Booking.com site to uncover what it does well and whether these same tactics would work for your company.

Quantity of Information

Let’s start by looking at a listing on Booking.com—for example, this apartment hotel in London. The first thing that is immediately obvious is the sheer quantity of information provided. This depth of information, including everything from reviews to details of the property to sites in the neighborhood, anticipates and answers nearly any question a potential traveler might have.

But the quantity of information serves another purpose as well. According to classic information processing theory, such as that studied by Petty & Cacioppo. Just the volume of information makes people more likely to trust it.

In other words, Booking.com provides visitors with copious details about each property, and the mere presence of that detail signals to visitors that the information is of high quality, making them more confident in their booking decision.

Social Proof

When uncertain about a decision, consumers are known to rely on a number of shortcuts and signals to make sense of an otherwise muddled set of options. Is the best hotel the one in the most desirable neighborhood? The one that is the cheapest? Or the one with free breakfast?

These features rarely align and are not directly comparable, so travelers need a tool to make sense of the various options.

Enter social proof, a tool used extensively by Booking.com. If visitors see that others approve of or have benefited from a decision, it reassures them that they will as well. This is most commonly seen online via user reviews and ratings, but such reviews can be confusing as well.

Booking.com addresses this by providing additional context and summaries, like adding a descriptive word to the rating value. A rating of nine, for example, is labeled “Awesome,” while a rating of eight is labeled “Very Good.”

Booking.com also provides multiple levels of summaries for user comments. One calls out common review phrases and is labeled “Bookers love…”

In a third contextual dialog box, which appears alongside the detailed property description, Booking.com summarizes reviews with excerpts:

This clever use of reviews and ratings guides bookers to the most important information, makes this valuable content more relevant and available, and emphasizes the social consensus that a property is a good choice. The addition of a person’s name, photo and location with the review humanizes it as well.

Scarcity and Urgency

Another behavioral economics principle that helps drive decision-making is awareness of the scarcity of a product and the urgency with which a decision must be made. Signs of scarcity are generally obvious: when visitors learn that there is “only one room left at this price,” they know that the object of their desire is in short supply. Booking.com effectively emphasizes scarcity where it is most relevant: the precise point at which a decision must take place.

There’s a lot going on in the image above, so we’ll break it down piece by piece. In the upper left, there is a clear indication of scarcity: “Only 4 left on our site!” This reminds the visitor that there are consequences to delaying their decision. Below, we see four properties that we have already missed out on. This last point emphasizes that not only are accommodations scarce—i.e., the physical inventory is limited—but also that time is scarce. When time is scarce, we experience a feeling of urgency. This is further capitalized upon with the red banner promotion indicating an opportunity to “Save 28% Today!”

The banner at the bottom also plays up the urgency messaging with its red color, clock iconography, and note that properties were booked “for your dates.” This message does double duty, however, with the social proof aspect that other people are booking similar properties.

Authority

Above we discussed that the quantity of information provided by Booking.com reassures visitors that the information is of high quality. This principle is further reinforced throughout the listing page by signals of authority indicating that the information comes from reliable, trustworthy sources.

One such indicator is that the property has been around for a while. This suggests that they know how to properly host and accommodate guests and that there has been sufficient time for reviews to accumulate.

In addition, we know that Booking.com considers the property to be high quality based on an evaluation of hundreds or thousands of different options around the world.

We also know that other guests have not just rated and reviewed the property, but validated the information in the listing as accurate.

Booking.com also offers up authority by involving the people who know the area best: locals. Adding recommendations from people who live there carries authority and social proof.

These behavioral economics principles—social proof, urgency, scarcity and authority—all work together to give the consumer details, confidence and the nudge needed to book a property.

Making travel decisions is difficult, but by understanding the tools and processes people use to assess information and arrive at a choice under uncertainty, you can make that choice easier. These examples from Booking.com not only demonstrate how such cues can be added to a page, but also how they can be adjusted and optimized to increase their effectiveness.

Curious about testing some of these ideas on your own site? Start by thinking about what will lead to a more enjoyable experience for visitors. Or, give Brooks Bell a call and we’ll help you figure it out. Learn more about our services for travel and hospitality brands.