Airbnb and the Success Case for Translation Crowdsourcing
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Airbnb and the Success Case for Translation Crowdsourcing

Airbnb and the Success Case for Translation Crowdsourcing

TravelLooking for a place to stay on your first trip to Rome? For many, the dream vacation has a dream budget that in no way reflects the reality of their bank account. So they have taken to the net and their own networks to unlock the mysteries of the budget traveler.

Articles on budget travel can be found via news sources around the world. And some travel guides — from Lonely Planet to TripAdvisor — have made their name on focusing on discovering the best options for the tightest budgets. While students always seemed to have the broadest set of options — from youth hostel networks to “couch surfing” portals — older travelers on a budget generally tended to hope for discounts, package deals, and properties far on the city’s perimeter to find accommodations they could afford.

Enter Airbnb

The company, founded in 2008, proposes a simple solution to the budget traveler, based on a “sharing economy” model. Instead of renting a hotel room in their destination city or town, platform users can rent a shared room, a private room, or an entire place from another user. That “shared room” could be a couch in the guest room of a San Francisco loft. That “entire place” could be a houseboat on Berlin’s Spree river. The options are as diverse as the company’s 2.1 million registered users.

Airbnb has become a force to be contended with in the travel and hospitality space. For a point of reference, consider the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. Where this giant of the traditional hotel sector boasts 88,000 employees serving 216,000 rooms in 105 countries, Airbnb’s “disruptive” model can claim over 1,300 employees serving over 600,000 rooms in 192 countries.

There are high-level debates about the merits of the “sharing economy” model. And, like so many brands in the public spotlight, Airbnb’s latest logo makeover has faced its share of Twitter-led backtalk. These major and minor controversies notwithstanding, there’s no denying that Airbnb has made a mark for itself on the global marketplace for travel and hospitality in what can only be characterized as record time.

And the thrust driving that success is what the team calls a “radically local” commitment to Airbnb localization.

How Airbnb Works

One significant part of the company’s success is the sharing economy model. At Airbnb the costs and opportunities are spread between Airbnb, the user-host, and the user-guest. Fees for the platform are assessed against the host (3 percent based on rental and security fees) and the guests (6 to 12 percent based on the number of guests and the number of accommodation nights). While the host-users themselves are responsible for what kind of accommodation they offer and the prices they charge, Airbnb takes care of the rest through a robust solution that provides for secure messaging, booking, and payment while attending the support services needed by host and traveler alike.

Want to list your home but you have just your camera phone for the photos? Airbnb will send over a professional photographer, free of charge. Want to realize your dream of meditating for weeks in a remote hut? Choose hut from the property type box of filtered search. Want to host a guest in your Munich flat from as far away as Auckland, New Zealand? Airbnb has an answer for that too.

How Translation Makes Airbnb a Success

That latter part — the international host and guest factor — is the often unacknowledged piece of the Airbnb success puzzle. With so much focus on the industry disruption of the sharing economy model, little attention is given to the very traditional approach that Airbnb has brought to the scaling of its international service offering.

Like many U.S.-grown businesses interested in global revenue, Airbnb has made sure to invest in the translation and localization of its brand and its services. “We strive to offer a native, local experience in all 192 countries where we have listings,” wrote an Airbnb recruiter. “For us, internationalization isn’t optional.” Indeed, this may be a “no-brainer” choice for a travel and hospitality company that counts some two-thirds of its user trips crossing country borders.

Airbnb has an in-house translation platform that is one part crowdsourcing — of travel writers, hosts, and guests — and one part a professional set of localization managers, translators, and agencies. While the platform’s 400,000 words of English content is currently translated into 25 languages, the plan is to expand to some 40 languages in total. Moreover, Airbnb rolls out its languages on all of its platforms — via its websites for desktop and mobile browsing as well as for apps designed specifically for Apple iOS and Android.

Moreover, the Airbnb is quickly scalable. When one of the founders had been invited to a meeting in Japan, Airbnb took just one week’s time to publish a Japanese version of the site. How did they do it? While one can look to the company’s reliable in-house translation structure and interactive visual tools meant to show translators how the translation looks in context, Airbnb takes great pride in the role of its own community.

“As always, relying on our awesome community of Airbnb hosts was our first choice,” writes Jason Katz-Brown. “Our community members know our service best and are passionate about making Airbnb accessible in their respective language.”

Translation Disruption at Work

At Moravia, we also like Airbnb’s ingenuous technical solution. Just like their business model can be described as disruptive, so can their translation solution built on Rails, the web application development framework written in the Ruby language.

Shying away from traditional, Translation-Memory based tools, this solution enables Airbnb to prioritize content for translation based on importance and the number of recent views of a given string on the live site. It also provides for near-perfect display of translated strings in-context, creating screenshots of strings showing exactly the context in which they are used on every page.

Even better, Airbnb’s tool allows translators and reviewers to edit translations while using the actual site, while benefiting from solid functionality for retrieving and prioritizing existing translations from a phrase database.

Airbnb Translation Environment

Screenshot capture in tool for in-context translation. Source: MultiLingual Blogos

Read more about Airbnb’s technical solution in this MultiLingual Blogos post.

In Conclusion

This is not to say that Airbnb’s translations are flawless. The use of a crowdsourced, community model shows and in many places it is clear that translations haven’t been done by professional, skilled translators. But the minor mistakes, occasional terminological awkwardness, and stylistic imperfections are easy to forgive when one considers the speed with which the content gets to local users. And one gets to experience the feeling of work done by a community for a community — in line with the company’s spirit.

To grow from three founders to 2.1 million global users in 6 years in a sector so dominated by bigger brands is why Airbnb has drawn more than $800 million in investment and has a $10 billion USD valuation. With an additional 15 languages on the localization plan, Airbnb pledges to bring its “belong anywhere” message to more users on the globe. A multilingual global community will get them (and us) there.

Check out the video on their logo redesign below. Share your comments and questions too!

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