Two years ago, suspecting deceit, Google deleted virtually all customers' reviews of auto dealerships that were sent from dealerships' computers. But the debate about in-store reviews continues to rage.
Reputation.com, a reputation-management firm certified by General Motors for its dealerships, has devised a method to revive those in-store reviews.
But some dealers are steering clear. Customers should be able to write their opinions without someone at the store looking over their shoulders, said Candace Lawley, marketing manager at Fisher Auto Inc., which operates a Honda-Kia store in Boulder, Colo. "It's an awkward situation," she said.
Some dealers like in-store reviews because they reflect customers' immediate opinions, presumably while they are impressed by their experience.
But in-store reviews -- which show up when shoppers use Google to find a dealership or a vehicle in their area -- were greatly curtailed in 2012. Google concluded that they were spam and mass-deleted them, and many dealerships lost hundreds of positive reviews.
Google is skeptical of reviews gathered and posted at the dealership. Since they come from a single store computer or Internet address, the search engine has no way to verify that real customers wrote the reviews.
Reputation.com bypasses Google's restrictions. Dealerships working with Reputation.com ask customers to write reviews in the stores but not post them from the dealership's Web site. Instead, dealerships send the reviews to the customer later for posting from home.
Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, said the method adheres to the spirit of Google's guidelines because the reviews are authentic and sent by a genuine store customer.
"Google wants real content, and as long as you're doing that you'll be in good shape," Fertik said.
Still, it doesn't address the question of dealership involvement in the review process.
Lawley of Fisher Auto said it's possible to get lots of Google reviews without soliciting them in the stores. When Google made its mass deletions in mid-2012, Fisher Auto's Google reviews plummeted from 300 to 11.
Lawley said Google restored some. But the current number of 513 has been built one customer at a time by asking clients to write a review and reminding them by e-mail or follow-up phone call.
Some dealers were so turned off by the initial Google deletions that they put their emphasis on soliciting reviews for other review sites, such as DealerRater, Cars.com and Yelp.
But Lawley insists that Google is what most shoppers use, so that's where the dealership needs to have reviews.
Fisher Auto sold 1,250 new vehicles and 610 used vehicles in 2013.
Tom Gorham, Internet sales and marketing manager at Apple Chevrolet in suburban Chicago, said that consumers should write reviews at home, not in the store.
He said: "It's not about getting a good review, but earning it with a good customer experience."