How online travel agencies are ‘dimming’ results on hotel searches


At first, to Christine Compo-Martin, the Expedia.com search results looked like a mistake. As she queried the site for a hotel room in Philadelphia, she found properties without photos.

“Honestly, if there aren’t pictures, I don’t even begin to consider it,” said Compo-Martin, a retired teacher who lives in New Hope, Pa. “I want to know where I’m staying — not show up and discover it’s not fit for cockroaches.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t a site error. Expedia had intentionally deleted the images in an effort to persuade her to book a different hotel. The practice, euphemistically called “dimming,” involves deliberately minimizing a hotel’s appearance or ranking in an online agency’s results.

It’s the byproduct of a behind-the-scenes conflict between hotels, which want customers such as Compo-Martin to book directly with them, and online travel agencies, which don’t want to be undercut by the hotels. The bottom line for customers: When you book online, you may not see the cheapest hotels first. In extreme cases, you may not even be able to book the hotel you want on the agency’s site.

The dimming problem flickered to life this spring, after hotels won a series of court victories in Europe that effectively allowed them to offer lower rates on their own websites, according to Dori Stein, the chief executive of Fornova, a technology company that works with hotels. Previously, hotels had contracts with online agencies that gave the agencies’ sites their best rates.

“Online travel agencies retaliated by dimming,” Stein said.

The practice quickly spread to affect properties in the United States, where the requirement to offer a better rate was dropped after the rulings in Europe. Expedia, Stein said, is the most prominent dimmer in the travel business, while Booking.com has lowered the rankings of some hotels but hasn’t removed their pictures. Booking did not respond to repeated requests for a comment. Expedia acknowledged that it is lowering the rankings of some hotels but said it was for the benefit of the customer.

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“We want to make sure the hotels with the best rates and inventory are put first,” said Melissa Maher, a senior vice president at Expedia. “We’re doing it because we’re consumer-focused.”

Maher said dimming is not as straightforward as it sounds. Expedia’s search algorithm weighs several factors, including the room rate; customer ratings; how often the hotel turns away reservation-holding guests and sends them to another hotel; and the commission paid to the agency.

She wouldn’t say precisely how many hotels are being dimmed, describing it only as a “small percentage” of properties. But, she added, if a hotel finds that its photos have been stripped away or it has moved lower in the search results, Expedia tries to work with the company to fix things.

“We want to give the hotel the opportunity to change,” she said.

That’s not necessarily how customers such as Compo-Martin see it. Dimmed hotels make an online travel agency’s search results look incomplete at best, buggy at worst. To her, they run contrary to the implied promise of an online agency, which is to show a comprehensive list of the most desirable hotels.

“I use sites like Expedia because I want all of the information up front at once,” she said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks at that and thinks, ‘What are they hiding?’ ”


It’s hard to know. As a practical matter, the top results on your favorite travel site may have longer descriptions with additional photos, but the properties shown may be more expensive. Lower-ranked hotels might be less expensive, but they might not have photos and their descriptions may be edited to a few sentences. In rare instances, dimmed hotels may not be bookable through the site.

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No one except the travel agency doing the dimming knows why a hotel is chosen for the treatment. “From one day to the next, a hotel chain can go from 150 dimmed hotels to 80,” said Gino Engels, chief commercial officer for OTA Insight, a London hospitality technology company. “One hotel chain may drop in the rankings, another may rise.”

As of July 21, OTA Insight said that slightly more than 1 percent of Expedia’s 260,000 hotel properties were dimmed.

The dimming problem gained momentum this summer just as the travel season was getting started. It’s a predictable ritual, with the dimmed hotel receiving a form email from Expedia on the day it falls out of favor with the online agency, warning the hotel that it isn’t offering its best rates through Expedia, Engels said.

“They’re trying to hurt the hotel, but they don’t want to hurt it too much. If they do that, it will start to affect Expedia’s bookings. It’s just a bit of a political game,” he said.

Others said that tinkering with search results is wrong and betrays a trust consumers have placed in online agencies.

“Dimming is unethical,” said David Rosner, the co-chief executive of SmarTours, a New York tour operator. That’s because the online agency is trying to trick its own customer into buying a more expensive hotel room. “This practice is similar to deceptive advertising in the sense that only those who read the fine print truly understand what they are buying.”

Dimming also exploits a public perception that the search results on online agencies are as unbiased as an Internet search engine. While many travelers believe an online agency will display the cheapest rates first in a relatively impartial way, the hard reality is that almost every part of the fare display is optimized for profit.

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“These sites generate revenue through hotel partnerships, commissionable rates and advertisements, all of which can affect search results for travelers,” said Jason Shames, the chief executive of Skipper, an online agency that specializes in group travel. It’s an open secret that online agencies trade higher search placement to hotels willing to pay higher commissions.

Now more than ever, you have to do your due diligence when you’re searching for the best hotels, industry-watchers say. They recommend starting with a site that searches multiple online agencies, such as Kayak.com or the hotel search on Google.com. (In Google’s search box, type “hotels in [city].”) Check an online agency such as Expedia or Booking to see if it can do better, and, if you find a hotel you like, click on the property’s website to make sure there isn’t a better rate.

For many travelers, that’s a lot of work — maybe too much work. Which is why, for now, dimming may succeed. Consider what happened to Compo-Martin. She ignored the hotels without photos and booked a different property in Philadelphia, the Rittenhouse, on Expedia. “I found a great deal,” she said.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Bill___A

    Unfortunately, hotels, travel agencies, airlines, etc. are mostly doing what they want as they want. We as individuals don’t have much influence. We are not even at the point of getting rid of something as obviously wrong as resort fees.

  • AAGK

    Dimming or excluding hotels entirely from its search parameters is annoying. However, Hotels may partner or sell rooms through any service it wants. There is no guarantee of complete inventory on an OTA. If I want to know for sure whether a hotel is available, I need to check with the hotel. If I choose to limit my search to what Expedia offers, then that is my choice. That’s like getting mad at seamless web for not offering the same selection of restaurants that delivery.com offers.
    The better way to use these sites is to have some places in mind first through tripadvisor, or reading travel publications, consulting with friends and/or travel agents.

  • AJPeabody

    TA is now doing bookings and thus is no longer a reliable pure search tool. A place that doesn’t play ball with them gets an inferior presentation. Money talks.

  • RightNow9435

    Solution to both….take our business elsewhere. The question is, will enough people do so.

  • AAGK

    I think I noticed that but didn’t take it seriously bc the attached agencies weren’t ones I would use (“edreams”- what is that). Thanks for the heads up on it affecting reviews though. I hadn’t thought of that but will definitely take it with an extra grain of salt.

  • Maxwell Smart

    what’s really bad for consumers is the demands by OTA’s for massive commissions, like 30% or even more. The hotel still needs to get the same net, so this pushes up prices.
    Was dealing with a hotel recently, who’s prices have jumped significantly, for this very reason. They said they could offer a better rate than online, BUT they could throw in some freebies, such as breakfasts, minibar credit etc.
    Also, used to deal with many hotels/condos in USA ski resorts & one big Colorado resort in particular said there rates couldn’t be found online except at their own website, which was designed for Americans staying on average 3-4 nights. To counter nearby resorts, they offered Australians huge discounts on lift tickets when they stayed longer than 9 nights. Instead of ticket window prices of USD$100+/adult/day, they offered prices of as little as USD$20/adult/day, when they booked accommodation. This also kills off airbnb & VRBO, who can’t get the lift ticket deals anyway at all.
    (FYI-if Australians are going to fly to USA to ski, they want to stay a few weeks. The average time spend by Australians in USA ski resorts in 17 nights (not necessarily at the same resort)

  • Maxwell Smart

    don’t be silly, the consumer is in control. Don’t like resort fees, stay somewhere else. Don’t like the prices stay somewhere else.

  • Maxwell Smart

    don’t get confused between order takers(skimmers) & those that sell hotels/airfares/etc. Big different. A wholesaler, I used to work for, had a strict rule, if a hotel didn’t offer a wholesale rate, better than any silly search engine, they were told we would book them anymore. As the wholesaler, booked 1000’s of room nights every week, the hotels very soon got the message. Sometimes a new & often young hotel or yield manager, was appointed & thought the “whole world” booked online & so shunned wholesalers, only to find that the wholesalers clients didn’t rush online, when wholesaler dropped the hotel like a hot potato.
    Don’t think a lot of people understand how wholesalers work.
    Say a ski resort has 100 places to stay. Rather than try & sell everything, the wholesaler will deal with only say 10, covering top end, middle & cheapest. The wholesaler will get a better rate & based on Australians long stays, the hotel would “love” them.
    Realistically, what hotel manager wants 5 x 2 night stays, when they can get one 10 night stay. Many condo operators are able to cut costs as well. Eg. instead of cleaning room everyday, they might only have to do it twice a week.

  • Lindabator

    Not REAL travel agencies — my job as an agent is to take care of the CLIENT, so if I don’t, he won’t continue to be one — making a couple bucks more on one booking is not worth losing their faith, their future business, and those they would let know when they are unhappy. An OTA, on the other hand, only sees you as THAT sale, so do not care about anything but their bottom line

  • AAGK

    Thank you for explaining this piece of the puzzle. I admit, I have no clue how wholesalers work, and I don’t even know how regular airfare works, actually. I find it all completely confusing. I imagine there is a place for sellers/consumers of bulk travel at better prices. The problems tend to crop up when someone is unaware that’s what they are even purchasing, so they don’t know the rules, etc. Also, OTAs make it all seem so simple, that folks don’t use travel agents when they definitely need them for complex or very expensive trips, for sure.

  • Maxwell Smart

    there are also group fares. A large wholesaler I worked for, use to do a lot of conferences. If the group requirement was for 70-80 seats, they would buy say 100 or more cheap airline seats, if at same price, as soon as they were loaded, around 11 months out. Then they would sell the remainder at a bit of a mark up.
    December-January travel for Australians is huge. Most schools in OZ, have 6-8 weeks summer school holidays then.
    So, a fare that can be purchased in Feb for late Dec/early Jan departures for say $1200 inc, but way of a non-refundable deposit, might be able to be sold for much higher later, when the going fare is say $1800. The wholesaler could sell them for $1500, make a few bucks & still be $300 less than going rate. The $300 “profit” is not really profit, until all sold though.
    Usually wholesalers, will combine such fares, with accommodation at wholesale rates &/or cars etc.
    OTA’s can never do this, although Allegiant tries to, as they are really a tour operator who happens to have an airline.

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