Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Dark Patterns on Travel Websites

Chris Baraniuk, BBC:

Ophir Harpaz just wanted to get a good deal on a flight to London. She was on travel website OneTravel, scouring various options for her trip. As she browsed, she noticed a seemingly helpful prompt: “38 people are looking at this flight”. A nudge that implied the flight might soon get booked up, or perhaps that the price of a seat would rise as they became scarcer.

Except it wasn’t a true statement. As Harpaz looked at that number, “38 people”, she began to feel sceptical. Were 38 people really looking at that budget flight to London at the same exact moment?

Being a cyber-security researcher, she was familiar with web code so she decided to examine how OneTravel displayed its web pages. (Anyone can do this by using the “inspect” function on web browsers like Firefox and Chrome.) After a little bit of digging she made a startling discovery – the number wasn’t genuine. The OneTravel web page she was browsing was simply designed to claim that between 28 and 45 people were viewing a flight at any given moment. The exact figure was chosen at random.

I have some travel coming up, so I’ve spent a few weeks trying to get a good deal on a flight and a hotel room. I cannot imagine that any website is thirstier for you to act immediately than a travel booking website. I’d do everything I could to limit my accommodation choices to just those within my budget and in a specific location, but I’d still be offered sold-out five-star hotels nowhere near where I wanted to be — I suppose this was to encourage me to book something, anything, quickly.

Also, many of the biggest travel booking websites are owned by just a couple of companies: Bookings Holdings runs Booking.com, Priceline, Kayak, and Cheapflights; the Expedia Group owns Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Trivago. Each group shares the same inventory, and they all use the same tactics. Users simultaneously get the impression that they’re shopping around and competing with other users, when neither is true.