Reputation Management

DEALERSHIP INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Stakes are high in reputation management

Michael LeGault
Automotive News | December 13, 2010 – 12:01 am EST

When Google speaks, people listen.

That’s why recent changes that Google has made to the way it lists dealerships and other retail businesses are reverberating through automotive retailing.

Until a few months ago, Google would attach a few reviews from major sites such as DealerRater.com next to a dealership’s listing. Now Google pulls reviews from all sites that carry ratings, states the number of reviews and posts the average customer rating of one to five stars to the right of the dealership listing.

“This is a huge game changer for reputation management, online or otherwise,” says Eric Miltsch, Internet director for Auction Direct USA, a used-vehicle dealership in Rochester, N.Y.

The logic is obvious. A consumer searching for car dealers who finds one dealer with 200 reviews and a four-star rating and another with 15 reviews and a three-star rating naturally would be more inclined to contact the four-star dealer.

In light of Google’s change, the need for dealers to be proactive in their reputation management is more critical than ever. Doing so is trickier than ever. Information technology companies are offering products they promise will help dealers do the job. Some of those solutions are so new and so similar that the marketplace hasn’t yet winnowed the best from the also-rans.

Generally speaking, there are two steps to managing a dealership’s reputation in an era of online reviews. First a dealer needs to know what’s being said online, and then a dealer has to respond.

Google provides free analytics as part of its Webmaster tools. Using Google’s tools, most Web site hosts can set up a data retrieval service.

That will send the dealership an e-mail alert when it picks up a mention of the dealership on a review site, Web page or blog. It also will track the dealership’s page view hits, unique visitors, click-throughs, key words driving traffic to the site and other information.

Miltsch says the information is invaluable in helping him manage Auction Direct’s online presence. “It’s simple to set up,” he says, “but a lot of dealers don’t even have it in place. And if they do, they don’t know how to use it.”

In addition, dealers can purchase software that not only scans the Web but also monitors social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for any mention of the dealer or key words selected by the dealer.

Chris Markey, sales and finance manager at BMW of Austin, a Texas dealership owned by Penske Automotive Group Inc., says he pays about $1,500 a month for a social media and online reputation management tool sold by Goso, which stands for Go Social. Markey says the tool allows him to see all reviews and comments on one page and respond promptly to any negative reviews.

Getting negative reviews is a fact of life, Markey says. Dealers should have a strategy in place to deal with them. “You want to create a dialogue with the customer so when other customers read it, they understand, ‘Hey, bumps in the road happen, but this is a dealer that doesn’t want it to happen twice,’ ” he says.

Because unhappy customers are more likely to write reviews, soliciting reviews from pleased customers is a must-do. Car buyers at Hyundai of St. Augustine in Florida receive an e-mail thanking them for their purchase and offering them links to review sites such as DealerRater.com, Edmunds.com and CitySearch.com.

Andrew Difeo, general manager of the dealership, says Google’s changes mean it is important to have reviews on a number of sites, not just sites favored by the industry.

“If you get a negative review on a site like Yelp, and you only have one review, that can have a negative impact on your Google rating,” he says.

Dealers may think that some negative reviews are unfair and be tempted to respond in kind. Don’t.

Russell Grant, national sales director at eXteresAUTO, a vendor of search engine optimization and online reputation management tools, says dealers have to play it straight.

“The reviews on your site have to be real, and dealers who try to use black-hat methods will get called out and have their reputations damaged,” Grant says.

Black-hat methods include using a review service to boost ratings or having employees or friends post glowing reviews.

That doesn’t mean dealers have to accept everything that gets posted.

Auction Direct’s Miltsch has been able to get negative reviews that he suspected were written by a disgruntled ex-employee and a competitor removed from sites. In the one case, the administrator of MerchantCircle agreed that the reviewer was using industry lingo that a typical consumer would not use.

Neither are negative reviews entirely negative. They lend a degree of legitimacy to a dealer’s ratings and offer an opportunity for insight into a store’s operation.

But Miltsch says he has seen some dealers devote a great amount of effort to create a search engine strategy to push negative reviews to the back pages of the search results, when they could be dealing with the complaint.

Miltsch says: “You have to take a step back and ask, ‘What is the process problem within the dealership that is creating the negative reviews?’ ”

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