There's a good chance you're familiar with Airbnb, the vacation rental website founded in 2008. On any given night, around 2 million people stay in an Airbnb rental. That's nearly the entire population of Houston staying in an Airbnb each night.

Surprisingly, Airbnb didn't invent this category. Another company, VRBO, actually launched the “rent your home model” 13 years before Airbnb. Even with that 13-year head start, VRBO isn't nearly as popular as Airbnb.

This, of course, made us ask, "What is Airbnb doing so right that caused them to skyrocket past VRBO, despite being 13 years late to the game?"

To answer this, we decided to dig into each website's analytics using a combination of Nacho Analytics, Google Analytics, and SpyFu. Looking through the two companies' website analytics allowed us to understand what each company is doing to drive traffic to their websites. From there, we looked at what that traffic is doing once it lands on each website.  

Three surprising things we learned right off the bat:

  • Airbnb drives a ton of traffic from direct sources, but not much of their traffic comes from email.
  • Airbnb is terrible at non-branded, organic SEO. There's a massive opportunity for them there.
  • VRBO is really bad at using third-party travel search engines to drive traffic.

The picture painted by this data showed us a lot about each company's growth strategy—and reminded us that sometimes the company winning the organic search battle isn't ultimately the one that wins the war.

1. Traffic Sources: Airbnb dominates direct traffic

The first question we had to answer was, "Where is each website getting its traffic from?" Even here, the differences tell us a lot:

Airbnb is doing a great job with direct traffic — 42.4% of their traffic is categorized as “direct.” That means nearly half of the people who visit Airbnb's website went to their browser and typed in "airbnb.com." It's pretty unusual to see direct traffic counting for that large of a percentage.

When we see that much direct traffic to a website, it's pretty safe to say that the company has built an incredibly strong brand — a brand that doesn't rely solely on digital advertising, search engines, or social media. That's ideal. VRBO, on the other hand, is getting only 21.1% of its traffic from direct.

It's clear that Airbnb has spent a significant amount of time (and money) building its brand. VRBO would be wise to follow Airbnb's lead on this one.

When it comes to email marketing, VRBO is clearly doing something right. The difference in the percentage of traffic each company is driving from email is drastic. Airbnb is only seeing 0.12% of its traffic come from email — a number so small it doesn't even appear on our chart. VRBO, on the other hand, is getting 10.8% of its traffic from email. If we were Airbnb, we'd spend a lot of time overhauling our email strategy.

When we take a quick glance at each company's organic traffic from search engines, it looks like they both do a decent job of driving organic traffic. Each of them gets about 25% of their traffic from search. But, when we dug deeper, we found something really interesting—Airbnb isn't doing that well. In fact, they're getting destroyed by VRBO.

2. Organic Traffic: Airbnb is getting crushed by VRBO

When you look at the raw numbers, it seems that Airbnb is dominating VRBO. Airbnb averages over 11 million organic visits per month. VRBO brings in only around 3 million organic visits each month.

The problem with Airbnb's organic traffic is that it's all branded. We looked at the top 100 search terms by volume for each company and found that all of Airbnb's top 100 search terms were branded. That means Airbnb's organic traffic is completely made up of searches like, "airbnb Chicago," "airbnb rentals in Paris," and similar terms. Their brand name appears in all of the top 100 search terms that drive traffic to their website. That's significant and not ideal because they're missing out on traffic for terms like “vacation rentals in Chicago.”

VRBO, on the other hand, does a great job with non-branded search. 31 out of their top 100 search terms by volume were non-branded. That means when someone searches anything like, "vacation rentals [location]," VRBO almost always appears long before Airbnb. In many  cases, Airbnb doesn't even land on the first page (and you know what they say about page two of Google).

Take a look for yourself (note - we excluded the ads from this Google SERP):

That's just one example. There are tons of other valuable keywords that VRBO ranks well for and Airbnb does not rank for. Here are just a few:

  • hilton head rentals
  • ocean city maryland rentals
  • cape cod rentals
  • cabin rentals
  • vacation homes
  • vacation rentals
  • vacation home rentals

This presents a massive opportunity for Airbnb. They need to get serious about capturing more of this non-branded search. The fact that VRBO exists and is successful getting traffic from non-branded search means that Airbnb has a ton of room to grow in this area. VRBO should be a little paranoid.

3. Website Engagement: Airbnb knows how to make visitors stick around

Website engagement stats affect SEO and e-commerce potential. Typically, the longer someone stays on an e-commerce website, the more likely they are to buy. This is especially true for someone booking lodging for an upcoming vacation. It's a big decision that people don't take lightly. As a result, visitors spend a lot of time on Airbnb.com and VRBO.com. But how does Airbnb and VRBO stack up?

  • Average session duration: 09:47 for Airbnb vs. 07:44 for VRBO
  • Pages per session: 19.68 for Airbnb vs. 10.13 for VRBO
  • Bounce rate: 18.55% for Airbnb vs. 24.11% for VRBO

The clear winner? Airbnb. This is likely due to a few things:

  • Inventory. Airbnb just has more lodgings to book. This partially comes down to the business model of each company. Airbnb allows hosts to rent out rooms, while VRBO only allows for whole apartment or home rentals.
  • Diversification of inventory. Not only does Airbnb have more inventory, they do a better job of diversifying their inventory. Airbnb offers homes, experiences (a fancy name for tours), and restaurant reservations. VRBO's inventory is completely made up of homes.

Those two points mean that visitors to Airbnb.com have more things to look at (and book). That keeps people staying on the website longer (and presumably booking more than just homes).

4. Geolocation: Who rules the world? Airbnb

Geolocation, or where a website's visitors physically live, can tell you a lot about a company's digital strategy. You can also figure out a ton about the company's global strategy and their market penetration. So what do the analytics tell us about Airbnb?

The top four traffic locations for Airbnb:

  • United States: 44.47% (no surprise there)
  • Russia: 5.23%
  • Malaysia: 4.27%
  • Canada: 2.69%

If we dig a little deeper, we see that not only is Russia Airbnb's second most popular country, it's actually gaining a larger traffic share each week (traffic numbers on the left side of this chart are in the 100s.):

There are a number of ways to explain this gain in traffic, but the most likely is that Airbnb is advertising in some form in Russia. Quick lifts in website traffic often signify a ramp-up in ad spend, whether that's digital or traditional advertising.Now, VRBO's traffic percentages by country:

  • U.S.: 83.36%
  • Canada: 5.92%
  • India: 0.69%
  • Russia: 0.65%

Outside of North America, VRBO has very little presence. This presents a huge opportunity for them. They'd be smart to go after Russia and Malaysia where Airbnb has already done the legwork of popularizing the vacation rental category.

5. Referral Traffic: Airbnb's secret weapon

As we started to examine the referral traffic, we noticed a recurring theme: much of Airbnb's referral traffic comes from third-party, travel-focused search engines. Kayak.com is a well-known example of one of these websites, but there are tons of others that aren't well-known and still drive a lot of traffic. A few examples:

  • rentbyowner.com
  • stay22.com
  • bringfido.com
  • inspirock.com
  • nestpick.com
  • hometogo.com

The same way people use services like Google Flights to compare flight prices, they're using lodging-focused search websites to compare vacation rental prices. VRBO is missing an entire category of website traffic by not prioritizing these websites. All of the listings on this page were for Airbnb:

Looking at the raw numbers from the past 30 days, these third-party, lodging-focused search engines have driven 133,500 visitors to Airbnb's website. On the flip side, VRBO has only gotten 2,160 visitors from these websites.

Other than the obvious fact that these websites drive a lot of traffic, it's also important to understand that these websites are pretty good at organic SEO in their own right. It wouldn't be unusual for someone to do a Google search for "vacation rentals in Chicago," end up on hometogo.com, and then get referred to Airbnb.

These websites also rely on visitors to make their money, so they typically have healthy advertising budgets. This allows them to easily capture more traffic and then refer that traffic out. They're paying for the traffic that they refer to Airbnb. That's a win-win situation for Airbnb.

VRBO's listings aren't even included on a number of those third-party referrers. From looking at this report, it's pretty clear that VRBO is missing out on a ton of traffic from those sources. VRBO needs to fix that problem—quickly. There's no excuse for not being listed on the same third-party search engines that Airbnb is on.

Conclusion

After diving into the website analytics of these two companies, it's pretty clear that there is room for improvement for both companies. The analytics show that Airbnb is doing better from a digital marketing perspective, but they're far from perfect. The company has a lot of work to do to gain non-branded organic traffic. If they can sort out this problem, they could become even bigger than they already are — and with a company valuation of over $30 billion, that's saying a lot.

The good news for VRBO is that their digital deficiencies can be fixed with the right strategy and planning. They should double down on the non-organic SEO, figure out their international expansion strategy, and fix their third-party search engine problem.