A woman sets up a bedroom for tourists in a rental house. The popularity of sites like Airbnb has led to supplemental companies cropping up as well. A woman sets up a bedroom for tourists in a rental house. The popularity of sites like Airbnb has led to supplemental companies cropping up as well. Hosts often don't realize this factor may be costing them business. (Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

The surprising X factor to renting your Airbnb

The reason – and it's not price, location, size or customer reviews – may make you smile.

When one guy moved out of our apartment last year, my roommates and I decided to turn his empty room into an Airbnb room. As a result, I've lived with English models, Irish bartenders, German dancers and a whole bunch of other people. We're usually booked, but we sometimes struggle to bring in guests. Thanks to a new study, I may finally know why.

Researchers at Jerusalem's Hebrew University discovered that one big factor affects whether renters choose an Airbnb room, and it's not price, size, location or customer reviews: it's profile pictures.

airbnbThese little profile pictures may be way more important than you'd think. (Photo: Screenshot/Airbnb)

Not that renters are looking for attractive hosts. Rather, they're looking for hosts who "look" trustworthy. What makes a trustworthy-looking host? The scientists weren't sure, but they thought smiling might matter.

“Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, the person is not the ‘selling product’ here," said Hebrew University's Dr. Eyal Ert, one of the study's co-authors. "On Airbnb, the focus is on the property and its attributes, but even so – we found that the profile pictures of the hosts are critical to their business success."

The scientists studied Airbnbs in Sweden, presenting host photos to 600 research participants and evaluating their first impressions. They found that Airbnb guests would pay higher prices for places with trustworthy-looking hosts, even though most participants had no idea that profile photos were affecting their choices.

“With the rapid growth of the sharing economy, especially in tourism-related services, there is a need to further investigate the trust mechanism upon which this economy is built,” the researchers said. “Different rules and consumer decision-making are at play here, and a fuller examination of these is still needed to shed light on how this economy really operates.”

My roommates have been talking about taking better quality photos of the apartment for Airbnb. But it sounds like we should really just replace our profile picture – currently just a photo of the living room – with one of us smiling.

MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:

Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Travel