Orbitz is in the headlines Tuesday after a Wall Street Journal report found that the online travel booking site is delivering different search results to customers owning Mac computers vs. those with PCs.
The Journal reported that after Orbitz discovered that Mac owners spend “as much as 30% more a night on hotels,” it began testing showing those customers costlier hotel options. The company was quick to point out that it does not show searchers the same hotel room at different prices, and it also allows users the option to sort results by price, so theoretically they could find a cheaper option if they preferred.
The report, though, could resurface concerns from consumer privacy advocates over companies' access to the public's Web surfing and shopping habits. This could lead to extensive consumer profiling without the public's knowledge, critics, such as the Center for Digital Democracy, have said in the past.
Orbitz defended its actions in a statement provided to MSNBC, saying it is simply “reflecting” its knowledge of customer habits to provide smart recommendations. “Our recommendation module has extremely high levels of consumer engagement,” the company continued (full response below).
Company CEO Barney Harford discussed the company’s customer data mining further in a May guest post on USA Today’s Travel site.
“We're trying to capture more information about travel planning behavior than any other company in the world,” he wrote. “To give you a sense of how much data we're talking about, last year we processed approximately 750 terabytes of log file information about user sessions. Just one terabyte can store the information in 285 million pages of text.”
As marketers’ online tracking capabilities have become more sophisticated, and they’ve combined online customer data with offline data points, such as address and martial status to name a few basic ones, a growing fight has brewed on Capitol Hill over the best ways to protect the public’s right to privacy versus allowing companies to tailor Web ads and shopping search results to the individual user based on what it knows about that person.
Most proposed solutions offer the public a way to opt out of online tracking through setting particular preferences in their browsers—a sort of “do-not-track” button. Marketers have argued this will impact consumers in ways they haven’t realized, particularly in that they won’t receive recommendations tailored to their interests.
Orbitz’s full statement below:
If you carefully read the WSJ, it never says Orbitz charges Mac users more. Because we do not. This story grew out of our observation that Mac users tend to like 4-5 star hotels more than PC users. We make recommendations about hotels along a number of variables, i.e., traveling with or without children. Just as Mac users are willing to pay more for higher end computers, at Orbitz we have seen that Mac users are 40% more likely to book 4 or 5 star hotels as compared to Windows users. What we are doing is reflecting that insight in our recommendations. Our recommendation module has extremely high levels of consumer engagement, indicating that it is a feature that our users really appreciate.