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 Edmunds.com and Cars.com, 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.”
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.”
Pay to Play
Yelp, which boasts 83.5 million unique visitors per month, addressed the perception that it is primarily a platform for restaurants and non-automotive retailers in its third-quarter 2012 filing with the SEC, even acknowledging that such a characterization could limit its reach. According to the filing, shopping and restaurant categories, combined, make up 44 percent of the businesses that have been reviewed, while automotive accounts for 4 percent of reviews available on the site.
That same filing also addressed a charge lobbed by Harrington at Lexus of Stevens Creek. The Lexus dealership bought into Yelp’s advertising, but it stopped after 90 days because of disappointing results. The experience has Harrington believing that the more dealers pay to advertise on Yelp, the higher their ratings climb. “They say nothing changes when you pay them, but it certainly seems to,” he says.
Officials with Yelp did not respond to requests for comment, but its filing with the SEC reveals that Harrington isn’t the only one to question Yelp’s business model. According to the filing, Yelp was named in two class-action suits filed in 2010 that charged the site with manipulating ratings and reviews to coerce businesses into buying its advertising products. The cases were dismissed in late 2011, but appeals by the plaintiffs have yet to be heard.
DealerRater doesn’t hide the fact that the 4.6-star average for dealerships that pay into its certified dealer program is a full point higher than non-certified dealers. But Ryan Leslie, director of reputation strategy, says there are several reasons for that — none of which are related to dealers paying for better ratings.
“That has everything to do with the training components,” he says. “They’re better at asking their happy customers to write reviews for them, so that’s generally why that is.”
The site also provides certified members with a two-week mediation period before a negative review is posted. If the dealer can resolve the customer’s issue, the post never appears. Leslie says the feature is offered because most reviewers aren’t out to destroy a dealer’s reputation; they’re fishing for a reply from dealer management.
“We’re really looking for a win-win reconciliation between the consumer and the dealership,” Leslie explains. “Some of the really glowing five-star reviews that read like a novel, those started as negative reviews. What’s happened in [the reviewer’s] mind is that their expectation was fulfilled.”
Brent Franson, vice president of sales for Reputation.com, says his Silicon Valley, Calif.-based firm has helped thousands of dealers manage their online reputations. And in his experience, having all positive reviews on one site and low scores on others is the quickest way for dealers and even review sites to lose credibility with consumers. “Online shoppers are savvy enough to realize an environment that might be gamed,” he says.
That’s why Brent Albrecht, who works with all of the major review sites as marketing director for SOCIALDEALER, isn’t a fan of the control DealerRater offers its certified dealers. He says there is no reason for dealers to fear negative reviews, as long as there is a healthy mix. “That’s where Yelp’s value is: it’s unbiased,” he says. “Some sites will let you dispute a review and prove it was either false or malicious, but they won’t just take it down because you don’t like it.”
Church, whose dealership has a 4.7-star rating on DealerRater, doesn’t have a problem with the site’s mediation period, but adds, “It isn’t a game changer.”
While You’re Here
Like Edmunds, Cars.com jumped into the review game in the past two years. Lauren Beaubien, Cars.com’s product analyst for dealer reviews, says the site’s 4.4-star average for dealers was achieved organically and with little filtering. But she expects the average to drop once the site begins to market its dealer review section more heavily to consumers. It’s not the goal, she says, but it is inevitable.
“One of the things we did before we rolled [Cars.com dealer reviews] out was we did a lot of consumer surveys,” she says. “And consumers said, ‘I’m not scared of negative reviews.’ … It helps them say, ‘OK, I’m seeing the whole picture here.’ People have bad days; it’s how you respond to that and how you try to fix it that really makes your reputation.”
Reputation.com’s Franson agrees, adding that dealers need to respond to all feedback, regardless of the source. “As consumers, we tend to be forgiving,” he says. “What we’re not forgiving of is being ignored.”
The edge Cars.com and Edmunds have over other sites is that they double as shopping sites for in-market consumers. Beaubien says their reviews complement the purchase funnel seamlessly. “People do go to multiple touch points when they research a car, but we’re seeing that if they don’t have to leave Cars.com and go read reviews on another site, they’re not going to,” she explains.
Though Cars.com boasts more dealer customers, Edmunds — with its 18 million monthly visitors, 16 percent of whom read reviews — claims a wider audience of potential car buyers. “Our motto is transparency, and consumer trust is the biggest asset we have,” says Donna Sechrist, Edmunds’ senior vice president of dealer initiatives. “[Edmunds is] where the shoppers are. They are making decisions along the way, not just about what car to buy and what price to pay, but where to go.”
Stevens Creek’s Harrington backs up that claim, noting that a significant number of the dealership’s leads originate from the site. “Edmunds people are definitely shoppers,” he says. “They want the third-party validation, which is why they’re there.”
Courtesy’s Church said the best strategy is to learn to take advantage of each review site’s individual perks. He even employs strategies picked up from DealerRater’s certified program on other sites, such as the postcard reminders the firm provides its dealers to get customers to post a review.
“To be master of one [site] is foolish,” he says. “We move our focus around. We might need to focus on Edmunds.com one week, then Cars.com the next. The majority of the time, we build a huge reputation based on DealerRater.”
Church’s team is also instructed to encourage customers to complete reviews while they’re still at the store, which Cars.com allows. But filters on Google, Yelp and DealerRater don’t accept multiple reviews from the same IP address, and Edmunds, which considers other factors before removing content, flags them as fraudulent reviews.
“We don’t want to prevent customers if they’re at the point of sale,” Beaubien says. “I can see if you’ve got this kiosk or you’ve got an iPad set up and customers have the privacy they deserve to write a review. There’s certainly a right way to do this, but there’s also a wrong way.”
A Reputation to Uphold
The “wrong way” to present a credible online reputation could include other common practices, too. Reputation.com’s Franson stressed that while it’s tempting to ask only happy customers to post reviews, he recommends systematically asking all customers. But he warns against incentivizing customers to post reviews or requesting that their feedback express a specific sentiment.
Regardless of how they’re collected, capturing reviews has become a critical part of a dealer’s marketing strategy. According to Digital Air Strike’s survey, 67 percent of the 1,600 consumers it polled use a review site when selecting a dealer. And J.D. Power and Associates found that shoppers trust review sites even more than social networks — where third-party validation often comes from people the shoppers know.
Harrington adds one other benefit to employing a proactive review strategy. “In some cases, it made [my employees] much more aware of the customer,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of guys really elevate their game and try to pay attention to [them].”
Collecting reviews has also become a key business generator for Courtesy Chevrolet. And Church says it’s not uncommon for reviewers to write things like, “Not only did they meet my price, it was the best buying experience.” And it’s those posts that usually end with something like, “I’m going to send all of my friends and family here.”
“Now, I’m sorry,” Church says, “but I couldn’t pay an advertising studio for that.”