Tours and activities brand Peek is under investigation by TripAdvisor for suggesting a system it has could be used by owners to ensure only positive feedback appears on review sites.
UPDATE (5pmET): Peek has asked Tnooz to add the following statement:
To clarify the timeline, Tnooz says it received information about the Peek Pro review system and that this week it shared this information with TripAdvisor. The company told Tnooz it would investigate. But Peek says it has not been contacted by TripAdvisor, and it maintains that it has not infringed on that company’s guidelines.
Release Notes posted in June on the Peek Pro back-end platform for operators suggested that users of its updated Smart Reviews service could influence whether customers submit reviews publicly or privately.
The instructions read:
Owners are then guided through how to use the company's technology to add URLs to product pages so that customers picking a high rating are directed to the company's page on TripAdvisor so they can leave a review, or lower scores are kept within Peek Pro.
Peek's Smart Reviews system is a common type of platform favoured by many B2B providers so that their customers can both capture and manage feedback from travellers, as well as encourage them to post on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Here is the official documentation from its help pages:
That the system has been positioned in another way in order to bring third party user review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp into the equation is not part of the company's official strategy, says CEO and co-founder Ruzwana Bashir.
Review sites such as TripAdvisor "strongly discourage business from using any service which attempts to influence when customer reviews appear and which don't".
Peek claims the page showing the Release Notes "does not exist" on its Pro system, but cannot say for certain that it has not done so in the past.
It has since emerged that email communications from at least one sales executive at Peek to a customer prospect have also suggested that the Smart Reviews service be used to help owners manage their feedback and influence what type of content ends up on TripAdvisor.
A bullet-point in the pitch sent during the last five months, obtained by Tnooz and headed "some reasons why we are better", says:
"Choose to Keep Only Four Star & Five Star Reviews. Direct customers with positive reviews to your TripAdvisor page to increase your rating and visibility on the web. Receive negative reviews directly so you can handle them individually and privately. Higher ratings = more views = more customers."
Peek insists it is not involved in any of the optimisation practices recently highlighted by TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer or posted reviews or removed negative reviews on behalf of its customers.
"It’s become clear that some members of our team, similar to other companies that provide B2B software to tour operators, have made recommendations that are potentially inconsistent with the guidelines of third party review sites around perceived 'cherry picking'."
TripAdvisor, which owns Peek competitor Viator, says it is now investigating the issue. The company has a firm policy on reviews, in particular, the process of soliciting reviews.
An official says:
"We call such activity 'cherry picking' and it goes against both the spirit and terms of our site, and may result in that property being penalised. If owners or travellers are aware of such activity, they can report it to us and our Content team will investigate."
There are no details as to how many (if any) of Peek's customers have used the Smart Review system in such a way.
Bashir says the company helps operators "get valuable feedback quickly and easily", allowing them to "take action if their customers have had a bad experience so they can resolve any issues and ensure customers end up happy".
Peek's customers are doing an "excellent job", she says, adding:
"95% of all internally collected reviews are 4 or 5 stars, and less than 100 of our operators have ever even received a single 3 star or less review. In fact the average customer review in the Peek Pro automated review platform is 4.75 stars."
Still, Bashir says the company will be ensuring its team receives training on the guidelines of major third party sites to "help prevent future inconsistencies".
However, she insists such practices "appear to be an industry norm", citing publicly available pages on FareHarbor ("Guide to TripAdvisor reviews"), Zozi ("Best Practices for Handling Negative Online Reviews") and Rezdy ("An Introduction to Social Media for Tour Operators") as examples of recommendations from companies to ensure only positive reviews reviews are posted online.
UPDATE Nov. 24: FareHarbor has since modified its Guide To TripAdvisor reviews article
These are mostly verbal tactics suggested for owners to use, rather than technical processes as part of a system.
Bashir also claims "some tour operators" are using sites such as Signpost to assist with how positive and negative reviews are managed.