Is Orbitz steering Mac users toward pricier hotels?

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Story highlights

  • Orbitz CEO: Company tries to display search results that pair consumer with best choice
  • Wall Street Journal article said Mac users were steered toward pricier hotels
  • CEO says Orbitz has found that Mac users generally prefer a nicer hotel
  • Orbitz experiment is not about making Mac users pay more, CEO says

Is Orbitz trying to get Mac users to book higher-priced hotels?

The travel website's CEO says that's not exactly the case.

But that's how many Mac users are feeling after the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Orbitz was steering Mac users toward higher-priced hotels than PC users, based on spending habits discovered by one of the site's algorithms.

CEO Barney Harford told CNN that Orbitz recommendation results are part of an attempt to pair customers with the hotel they'd probably pick. In this case, Orbitz will offer recommendations based on what other PC or other Mac users selected as their final hotel, on the assumption that spending habits are the same, he said.

"What we have found is ... that Mac users are 40% more likely to book four- or five-star hotels than PC users," Harford said. "That lines up with (the fact that) Mac users are typically more willing to spend more money on higher-end computers."

In the Wall Street Journal story, Orbitz engineers said they were experimenting with predictive analytics based on users' computers, which resulted in Mac users being served up a different set of results -- often with a bigger price tag. And boy, did that anger some Mac users.

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Once the Journal story hit, many people took to Twitter in a fury, saying that just because they shelled out money for a MacBook doesn't mean they don't want a good deal on a hotel. Others argued that buying a pricier computer would leave them less money for a vacation and make them more inclined to seek travel deals.

    They argued that what Orbitz is doing is unfair and that it is forcing Mac users to take longer or dig deeper for a deal.

    Meanwhile, rival travel sites Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity capitalized on the furor to insist that they don't use similar algorithms based on what type of computer their customers employ.

    Mac vs. PC: The stereotypes may be true

    Online marketers have long culled information about users in order to better target ads. And studies show that consumers are indeed targeted in different ways based on their devices. You may see different promoted products on many sites depending on whether you're using a mobile app or a desktop.

    Marketing analysts, reacting to the Orbitz story, say the thinking is that if you're willing to shell out extra money for an iPad or MacBook, you may have more disposable income. They believe that Orbitz may be trying to skew their results for Mac users based on this perception.

    Orbitz, on the other hand, says it's trying to provide Mac users with the best hotel recommendations based on what other Mac users are choosing. Orbitz data show that Mac users are likely to spend $20 more a night on a hotel than PC users, on average, Harford said.

    Harford said his company is in no way charging Mac users more for the same hotel as PC users.

    "That would be absolute nonsense," he told CNN.

    Harford said customers can always ignore the recommended options and search specifically by price.

    "Our goal though is to use technology to learn from the millions who search our website every day, every week, every month, to make the consumer experience better. We are really excited about the potential to use this wisdom ... to make travel better for consumers," he said.

    "This is just one of myriad examples of how we're making the site more customized."