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Star-Eyed Dealers

March 2013, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Stephanie Forshee

Brendan Harrington, president and general manager of Lexus of Stevens Creek
Brendan Harrington, president and general manager of Lexus of Stevens Creek
Two weeks after Lexus of Stevens Creek paid into DealerRater’s certified dealer program, the San Jose, Calif.-based dealership’s score jumped from a 2.3 average to 4.9 out of five stars. It’s an investment the retail outlet made to offset its lack of a score on Google+ and its 3.5 score on Yelp.

The dealership also claims five-star ratings on and, which is why Brendan Harrington, the dealership’s president and general manager, doesn’t hide his displeasure with the store’s image on Yelp. “We’re pretty much mentally done with Yelp because all of the reviews have been scrubbed off,” he says.  

Yelp isn’t the only site getting under the skin of dealers. Google+ drew criticism from auto retailers last fall when reviews suddenly vanished. Some stores said they lost upward of several hundred reviews.

Google had been short on answers until November, when the company’s automotive industry director spoke at the J.D. Power and Associates’ Western Auto Conference. “It’s a balance between signals that may indicate that a review is ‘spammy’ in nature and [trying] to provide the best experience for all users across the board,” Michelle Morris said of Google’s new review algorithms.

There is no end in sight for the cat-and-mouse game being played between review sites and brands, especially when 71 percent of car buyers use Google to locate a dealer, according to a report issued in November by Digital Air Strike, which offers a reputation management system General Motors began promoting to its dealers in November. And almost half of respondents indicated they click on the dealer reviews that appear in their search results.

“You have to make sure that you are really understanding the digital landscape and understanding where your consumers are shopping,” says Jason Church, Internet director for Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix. “And if they’re shopping there, you want to make sure you’ve invested some time and energy in getting some good reviews.”

Censored Gripes
Stevens Creek’s Harrington says the sudden surge in his store’s DealerRater rating was the result of customized pages the firm offers for individual employees. It’s one of many features the site provides to help certified dealers maintain a high score and inspire employees to deliver a better customer experience.

But DealerRater is the only site that offers such features. In fact, sites like Yelp often filter out reviews that mention employees by name, as well as other reviews it deems questionable. Lexus of Stevens Creek, for instance, shows 121 reviews visible on Yelp, but Harrington says the site’s system filtered out 324 additional reviews without explanation.

In its third-quarter 2012 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Yelp claimed its engine filtered about 7.4 million, or 22 percent, of the 33.3 million overall reviews, while another 7.5 percent were removed for violating terms of service or by the actual user. The filtered posts can still be viewed, but the ratings do not factor into a business’ overall score. And consumers have to know to look for the filtered comments.

Google’s Morris sympathized with dealers when she spoke at the J.D. Power event, saying her company acknowledges that reviews are legitimate and valued real estate for dealers.

“At Google, everything is scaled, so reviews had to scale across industries and our policies,” she explained, adding that the company is working on being more transparent with businesses so they can better understand its filtering process. Morris also indicated that the company is exploring the possibility of integrating existing gauges for customer satisfaction, such as manufacturer CSI programs, into Google+’s review process.

Courtesy Chevrolet lost some of its older Google+ reviews when the company adjusted its algorithms, but Church says the store’s 22 of 30 (3.7 out of five stars) average remained intact. However, he did witness one of his competitor’s ratings plunge from five stars to one. “I think Google’s algorithm was looking for relevance,” he speculates. “Was it a relevant review if it was from 2004? Probably not.”

But Church isn’t so forgiving when it comes to Yelp. “In the world of reviews, Yelp is the one that I haven’t really come to a complete solution on yet,” he says, adding that the site’s filters have removed 73 of his store’s 90 reviews despite him spending a year focusing on the site. “Their filtering is so strong … I still haven’t figured out how to get positive reviews — unless I turn myself into a restaurant.”


  1. 1. Joec [ September 19, 2013 @ 11:02AM ]

    Agree with Franson on this. Dealerrate can call it anything they want " If the dealer can resolve the customer’s issue, the post never appears." but at the end of the day, "the post never appears" is no different than deleting a negative review. So, Franson's right, it's just not credible from a consumer perspective. I've seen numerous dealerrater certified dealers with 500+ reviews and a 5 star rating. What customer in their right mind would believe that? I don't know if an icecream vendor at the gates of hell could have such a rating


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