Early this month, dealer Scott Pitman watched in dismay as Google deleted 400 of his customer reviews over two days.
Google left his Suzuki of Wichita dealership with just nine reviews -- all negative -- on a Google page, which cratered the store's stellar consumer-review rating of 29 of 30 possible points to no score, Pitman said.
The purge came without notice or explanation, he said, and Google offered no chance to appeal.
"Google believes it can do whatever it wants and has no accountability," said Pitman, whose store in Wichita, Kan., is Suzuki's top-selling U.S. dealership.
Google also unilaterally deleted all but a handful of customer reviews from the Google+ Local pages of Fisher Auto Inc. in Boulder, Colo.; North End Motors, a used-car dealer in Canton, Mass. -- and, by Google's own admission, numerous other dealerships.
The Internet giant -- which since has restored some of the reviews -- offers no detailed explanation of why or how it did what it did. But the company said in a statement provided to Automotive News that it seeks to prevent "spammy" content, even at the risk of sometimes removing legitimate reviews.
"We know this is frustrating when it happens but believe that overall, these measures help everyone by ensuring that the reviews appearing on Google+ Local are authentic, relevant, and useful," the statement said. Google declined to elaborate.
Pitman's experience underlines both the marketing power and the pitfalls of Google. The Internet behemoth is connecting dealerships with a growing portion of their customers -- but dealers have far less control over Google's interactive features than they do over traditional advertising media.
The three stores said their reviews are legitimate, obtained by requests over several months to sales and service customers. They are at a loss to explain why Google cut them and have failed to get Google to discuss specifics.
The three have filed separate complaints about their treatment with the Federal Trade Commission. Pitman said he isn't optimistic that the complaints will move Google.
Savvy dealers are active in requesting online reviews from customers to try to get an edge with the 90 percent of car buyers who start their shopping on the Internet, according to widely accepted marketing figures.
But some dealers accuse other dealers of salting their sites with bogus reviews, an activity difficult for casual observers to detect.
One of the crucial venues for reviews is on the Google+ Local page, for which dealers sign up, at no charge. Shoppers get to that page by clicking on the "Google reviews" link that typically appears on the first page of a Google search for a dealership.
The Google+ Local page, which includes Google's red pin and a map, also shows the dealership's score, its address, phone number and often links to inventory.
After Google's deletions this month, Fisher Auto, the parent company of Fisher Honda and Fisher Kia in Boulder, Colo., saw the number of its Google reviews plunge from 300 to 11, said Mark Brady, the executive director.
The 11 reviews that Google left on the dealership's page were predominantly negative, Brady said. That caused Fisher Auto's previously stellar rating of 29 of a possible 30 points to fall into the single digits.
North End Motors had its reviews slashed from 156 to 10, said the president, Mohammad Ahmed. North End's rating fell from 28 to 5.
With Google searches responsible for sending two of every three shoppers to dealership Web sites, Ahmed said he is worried that the loss of reviews on his page is costing him sales.
He said: "I know myself that I wouldn't buy from somewhere if I couldn't see reviews."