Don’t get me wrong: I like living in Boston. But summer in the city is basically sizzling asphalt and slow-moseying tourists.
My wife and I have been heading up north to a little beach town called Plum Island every free chance we get, and I’ve decided that’s the kind of place a guy like me belongs — maybe not permanently, but at least for an extended period of the summer.
So I’ve been looking into vacation rentals there and, as I assume many people who look for vacation rentals have found out, most roads generally lead to HomeAway.com, VRBO.com, Craigslist and maybe a brief swing by Airbnb for good measure.
Here’s a brief overview of the number of Plum Island vacation rentals at each site.
VRBO: 39 (VRBO is owned by HomeAway)
Craigslist: 12 (maybe with duplicates?)
Airbnb: 1 (one actually on the island, five others nearby)
Now I know that there have to be other vacation rental sites out there, but the doldrums of summer life in the city have already worn me down to the point of extreme sluggishness. Yesterday morning, however, I perked up ever so slightly while reading Kyle Alspach’s round-up of noteworthy Massachusetts-based high-tech startups on Boston Business Journal‘s site.
One of those startups, Otalo, positions itself as “the vacation rental search engine,” aggregating listings from various vacation rental sites.
Having a good idea of how many Plum Island properties are available on the other sites I’ve been using, I pulled up the Plum Island listings on Otalo and was presented with an impressive selection of 97 options.
Many of them are from HomeAway and VRBO, but there are a handful from sites I hadn’t tried, such as VacationHomeRentals.com, FlipKey.com, FindRentals.com and a few others. There are none from Craigslist or Airbnb, which is fine since most of the Craigslist entries are also on HomeAway (or devoid of photos or sketchy or outdated), and Airbnb only has one property listed on the island.
Like any good property search site, Otalo features a map of listing locations but, unfortunately, the ones for Plum Island are simply listed as a big 97-property clump without their actual, respective locations.
I asked Tierkel if Plum Island’s relatively small size made it difficult to plot all the listings on the map, and he remarked that most of the third-party listing sites from which Otalo corrals properties haven’t had accurate enough location data until recently to reliably plot each address on the map.
“Our navigation map is used to browse different towns with vacation rentals — hover over the pins and it will show the number of rentals available in each town — click on the pin and it will load the results with those rentals,” said Tierkel. “We will be adding an improvement to the site which will map the physical location of each rental itself. Most sites have not provided accurate property location data in the past, but we are just now finding that about 50% of the properties on the web do have good location data, so we are adding it in.”
And since many of the listings come from both HomeAway and HomeAway-owned VRBO, there’s some doubling up on a few of the properties. One of the duplicate properties I found was listed at differing prices between HomeAway and VRBO, too.
See the little green house on the left and the same little green house on the right? The HomeAway version states that the price starts at $850 a week, while the VRBO version says the price starts at $950 a week. Clicking through to either one, however, reveals that the price indeed starts at $950 a week. I asked Tierkel about how often property information gets updated (between 24 hours and a month, depending on the site, he said) and how Otalo deals with duplicate listings.
“We feel that eliminating duplicates between all these sites is very important — it makes it much easier for the traveler,” said Tierkel. “We consolidate duplicates into a single entry on Otalo and then list all the sites where we found the property. As you can imagine, it’s a tough problem to solve. We use a proprietary algorithm to accomplish this. We get 90% — and are actually releasing a new version of the site that gets even more (as we speak)!”
“Part of our algorithm matches the pixels in the photos that exist on a given site,” said Tierkel. “We had a specific issue processing the fuzzy borders that VRBO adds around the photos on their site, which threw our algorithm off. That’s being fixed right now and will be released this week, so that Plum Island house you saw would be consolidated into a single entry.”
Scouring multiple vacation rental sites, eliminating duplicate information and organizing what’s left into a coherent collection is no small task, but Otalo seems to be well on its way to doing just that. The site currently boasts 1.6 million listings worldwide and will be adding additional rental sites next week to bring that number to just shy of two million listings.
(MORE: Airbnb Gets More Social, Aspirational and Beautiful with Wish Lists)