When Brian Bakhtiari joined Stevens Creek Subaru in October 2012, the San Jose, Calif., store had a one-star rating on online customer review site Yelp.
As general manager, Bakhtiari made it his mission to improve the rating. By the spring of 2016, he had brought it up to four stars by reforming or firing staff that weren't delivering customer satisfaction results.
"Online reputation is vital for any business," Bakhtiari said. "I tried to change the culture of the store. You have to give customers excellent service."
Positive online reviews are crucial to any retailer in the age of smartphones and social media. But as Bakhtiari soon learned, focusing attention on one platform can be risky because review sites often change strategies quickly, which can erase a dealership's online reputation overnight.
Stevens Creek maintained its four-star rating for about a year, with the goal of hitting 4.5 stars in the next two and a half years. But the store's progress was abruptly erased in March.
"In the middle of March, I noticed a drop from four stars to 3.5," Bakhtiari said. "In the first week of April, we dropped from 3.5 to three stars."
The 1,300 recommended reviews on Stevens Creek's Yelp page had been filtered, moving up to 700 reviews from recent years from the main page to a link at the bottom where visitors could access reviews "not currently recommended" by Yelp. That resulted in the dropped rating.
For comparison, at press time, Stevens Creek had a 4.1-star rating on Google with 284 reviews, a 4.9-star rating on Cars.com with 1,405 reviews and a 1.9-star rating on DealerRater with 13 reviews.
"For a retailer, this hurts," Bakhtiari said. "We did all this work to improve our reputation online; it goes a long way with consumers."
Yelp filters its reviews to display comments from users with longer histories on the website, determined by the number of reviews they've written and the number of "friends" they have on the site. First-time visitors to a retailer are less likely to have their reviews placed prominently. Yelp prohibits businesses from writing their own reviews and discourages them from asking customers to write reviews on the site.
A Yelp spokesperson said the company had refined its filtering software to "take action" against reviews it determined to be solicited. Stevens Creek was one of many businesses, including dealerships and other retailers, that were part of the renewed effort to filter reviews that customers were asked to write, she said.
Bakhtiari said the dealership had been asking customers to leave reviews on Yelp as part of its efforts to improve its online reputation. However, after hearing from a Yelp representative that the site was filtering solicited reviews, Stevens Creek now has employees ask customers to leave an online review, without specifying a platform.
Less frequent visits
Keith Theisen, a dealer consultant with Cox Automotive, said Yelp's filtering software has been causing issues for dealerships for the past few years. The main problem is that customers visit dealerships much less frequently than restaurants or other stores, causing the software to automatically filter out many reviews written for dealerships.
Some of the stores Theisen works with will have tens, maybe hundreds of recommended reviews on Yelp, compared with thousands on sites such as DealerRater and Cars.com, which have different filtering parameters.
"Yelp's algorithm is set up to highlight those people who go out to eat and stay at hotels regularly, not those who buy a car once every three to five years," Theisen said.
Dealerships don't have the luxury of ignoring their reputation on Yelp and other review sites — 68 percent of consumers trust opinions posted online, according to Nielsen. On some search platforms, such as Apple's Siri, Yelp reviews are listed prominently when searching for a business.
Unless Yelp changes its filter policy, there's little dealers can do to make sure reviews, positive or negative, stay on the site.
"I don't know how to fix it," Theisen said.
As for Stevens Creek Subaru, Bakhtiari said the store is diversifying its online efforts, building its reputation on other review sites and social media platforms. "We invested a lot with Yelp," he said. "To put all your eggs in one basket, we found out, can be harmful."