Eley Duke III, vice president of Duke Automotive, could watch worry-free this year when Google deleted thousands of customer reviews from dozens of dealerships nationally.
He had almost no exposure to the purge because nearly all of the Virginia retailer's reviews were on DealerRater.com, 232 vs. just 11 on his store's Google+ Local page. Duke sells Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles in one store in Suffolk, Va.
Since Google's mass review purge in late summer, dealers have tried to figure out where best to send customers to write online reviews. It has been a challenge because Google is so well-positioned to influence online shoppers. Two of every three visitors to a dealer Web site get there by clicking on a Google-generated link.
Dealers are using other review sites, such as DealerRater and cars.com, to gather customer reviews. They are also improving the search characteristics of their Web sites so their dealership sites show up on shoppers' first Google search page.
"We never solicited Google reviews -- not because we were really smart or anything," Duke, 40, said. "We just felt the reviews we got on DealerRater would be authentic and legitimate."
In August, dealers began in earnest seeking alternatives to their Google pages for reviews. That's when the giant search engine, trying to eliminate bogus reviews, changed its formula, or algorithm, for including reviews on dealerships' Google+ Local pages.
A Google+ Local page is established by a business at no cost to display contact information and provide other links for shoppers to get more information.
Dealers say Google reviews also are limited by the requirement that a dealership customer have a Google+ account, Google's Facebook-like social media platform for individuals, to leave a review on a dealership's Google+ Local site.
After the August purge, dealers were furious that Google would not give them specifics on why their reviews were purged. They argued, largely unsuccessfully, that the deleted reviews were legitimate.
Reviews influence shoppers' dealership choices.
A study by Volkswagen this year found that VW dealerships that attained an average score of four stars or better (out of five) on consumer reviews received 32 percent more traffic to their Web sites from Google searches than those with two stars. The study was done before Google switched from a five-star rating system to a 30-point scale.
Since the Google purge in August, DealerRater has posted a 10 percent increase in new monthly reviews as dealers have sought alternatives, said Heather MacKinnon, DealerRater vice president of sales. DealerRater has 4,650 certified dealership customers.
On average, DealerRater receives 870 new reviews a day, she said. It now has about 895,000 reviews from 10 years in business.
Another fast-growing review site is cars.com, which recently surpassed 100,000 reviews in the 18 months that the online car-shopping site has been accepting dealer reviews. Other players include Yelp, Citysearch, Superpages.com and DriverSide.com.
Google, in a written statement, declined to say how many dealership reviews are posted on Google+ Local pages. The company said more than 10 million reviews are available through Google+ Local across all industries.
The reviews, Google wrote, help shoppers "make informed decisions about businesses and services that interest them." Google also continues to provide links to third-party review sites on the Google+ Local pages of dealerships as an additional resource for shoppers, the statement said.
The 232 Duke Automotive reviews accumulated on DealerRater have yielded a stellar 4.9 stars out of a possible five stars, Duke said. By comparison, the Google purges have left the store with mostly poor or mediocre reviews on the store's Google+ Local page for a score of 16 points out of a possible 30.
"We're very happy we stuck to the path we took for gathering reviews," Duke said.
Duke Automotive averages 60 new- and used-vehicle sales a month.
Duke said DealerRater makes it easy for customers to leave a review of the dealership. The store sends an e-mail with a link to DealerRater every time a customer buys a vehicle or gets service.
Those customers can write a review at their leisure.
Until August, a popular way for dealerships to solicit reviews was to ask customers to write them inside the dealership at a kiosk in the store or on an iPad with a Gmail account that would allow the reviews to be posted on Google.
But reviews obtained that way generally were purged by Google in August, leaving dealers looking for alternative ways of collecting them.
Duke said online shoppers can see his DealerRater reviews, even on Google. Google lists non-Google review sites used by dealerships at the bottom of their specific Google+ Local pages.
Duke said he also has made sure that content on his Web site causes his reviews on DealerRater to pop up in a Google search when shoppers look for the store.
Brighton Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Brighton, Mich., now has more than 100 reviews on the site DriverSide.com since the store began directing customers there, said Kim Essenmacher, the store's Internet manager. The dealership has a button at the bottom of its Web site home page where shoppers can see the reviews.
But Essenmacher said she wishes more people could get their reviews on Google because of the power the search engine has in the shopping process. Those reviews are limited by Google's requirement that reviewers have a Google+ account.
Duke said his process with DealerRater is getting the dealership the desired exposure.
Dealer principal Lydia Duke, Eley's mother, sends the thank-you note to customers that contains the DealerRater link. In the two years that the store has been with DealerRater, it has had just three negative reviews.
In two of the three cases, Eley Duke said, he was able to talk with the reviewer over the phone and work out the differences to the satisfaction of the customer.
Duke said DealerRater e-mails him every review that the store receives. He said he uses them to credit staff or improve operations.
In 2013, Duke said, he plans to have an employee respond to every review to acknowledge to customers that their input is appreciated.