Interview with Cars.com on Dealer Ratings: Part 2

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On Wednesday, we posted the first half of an interview with Nick Hummer of Cars.com about how their new dealer ratings & review system is coming along.  Here for your reading pleasure is the second half of our discussion.

JS: One of the things I thought was interesting is that you have a partnership with Bazaarvoice, is that correct?

Nick: Yes.

JS: Have they had to scrub much so far in terms of profanity or some of those other things or have they not really had to remove many reviews so far?

Nick: The amount of reviews that they are scrubbing hasn’t changed much since we’ve launched. I looked today and I think we’re at about 14% that are being kicked back. I’m actually pretty happy with that because it shows that yes, we are finding things that we don’t want and are rejecting them but it’s not been overwhelmingly so.

JS: I would imagine, I’m trying to put myself in your shoes, are you kind of learning as you go along with seeing the kickbacks and changing your stance on things and modifying what you want to see and what you don’t want to see or are you like, ‘here are our guidelines and here’s what we’re sticking with?’

Nick: We’ve definitely been tweaking some things and I think one of the big things we’ve seen, and Bazaarvoice has been great – they do a lot of fantastic moderation, but one of the things that we’ve seen is that the dealer business is so different from a lot of other industries that we have found that we have to tweak some things over time, but more along the lines of really understanding that here is the type of experience that would lead me, as a car buyer, to leave a review.

So, I think one of the best examples that I’ve seen is that on most review sites, when you’re reviewing a product – a physical product – you don’t want to include that I got something that would indicate that I got X number of dollars off the deal because you’re reviewing the store or the deal. And what we’ve been seeing is we get a pretty substantial number of reviews that call out specific things like that. It’s one of those gray areas that we’re taking a look and trying to figure out what makes the most sense in our world because for the most part I say that we probably all know someone who has gone to a dealership and got a fantastic deal and they immediately came back and said, ‘oh my gosh, you should shop at this store because they gave me $400 off’ or whatever it was. We want to make sure that we encourage people to leave those types of reviews while also not setting a certain expectation that it’s always going to be done this exact way for every person who comes into that store.

JS: Ruins their leverage to be able to do those types of things. Do you have a breakdown of what percentage have been kicked out for being spam, you know some evil person in my industry automated that’s trying to build links vs completely flaming vs….

Nick: I don’t have anything that I can quote off the top of my head but I do know that I’ve looked pretty closely and I really haven’t seen very much spam at this point mostly it’s about specific content rather than the same review being posted over and over again by the same person …that type of stuff.

JS: Do you have stuff in place to kick stuff out for dealers trying to game the system, not for negative reviews, but trying to get people to leave good, fake astroturf?

Nick: Absolutely. It’s the first thing that brought up when we talk to site users or the dealers. And it goes both ways. It’s this fear that:

1. How do you make sure that a dealer is not leaving a lot of negative reviews, followed by ‘How do I make sure that the dealer down the road isn’t coming in each morning and telling his salespeople that they’re going to leave five glowing reviews today just to build up our volume.’ So there are a couple different things that we do and you’ll see this when you look at the screen shot [see below], we do ask whenever someone leaves a review, the last question that we ask is a check a box to certify that they’re not employed by a dealership. I realize that’s not going to catch everyone, but we do want to make sure that right off the bat that we are asking the question to make sure that people understand that if you are a dealer, leaving a review, we are going to pay very, very close attention to it and you really shouldn’t be using it for that.

JS: Because you have a little bit of a hammer that you could bring down on someone for doing that.

Nick: Exactly. It gives us the ability to come back and say, ‘you know what, you certify that you weren’t a dealership, but your IP address indicates that you are so we’re going to do something with this.’

The other thing that we do is we require that each and every review goes through a validation process by the person who wrote it before we even look at it. The example that I use, is that if I’m at work and I’m bored and I am going to go write 20 bogus reviews, I’m going to get 20 different emails, and I have to open up each and every one and validate it and say yes, indeed I did write this and I did mean to send it. So, as a first step if we get 20 reviews, we do take a look at where the reviews are coming from so we do have some threshold there that will kick-off something that says, ‘you know what this is a little suspicious or we just don’t want this at all.’

JS: I can understand why you might not want to disclose any of this information, but can you talk about anything that you have in place to guard against astroturfing or false-flaming or anything like that?

Nick: What I can talk about is pretty standard from what I’ve heard in the industry is to pay very, very close attention to the IP address of any dealership. I know some folks who go to the trouble of specifically collecting the IP address of every dealership and for other folks who just pay attention to once a response is written, capture the IP address and then sort-of flag that for any reviews that come later on. So, we do similar stuff there because we do want to make sure we are paying very, very close attention to. Once we feel like something is coming from a dealership, we don’t other different types of content coming from someone who may have a biased viewpoint there.

JS: Have you had any feedback…one of the things that … and almost everyone deals with this because anyone who has reviews, like you said, some kind of IP check…something along those lines, but one of those throwing the baby out with the bathwater type of issues, at least from my perspective, is that it’s really convenient if a dealer can just leave up a computer and have the new car buyer talk about their experience, right there in the moment.

Nick: It’s one of the hardest things in the world and it comes up so often and it’s such a great idea, you know ‘I’m in the store, I’m buying a car, I’m sitting there waiting for the financing to go through (or whatever it is)’, and they say, ‘why don’t you go ahead and leave a review for me while you’re here.’ We would love to be able to do it, it’s just that the number one concern, from both site users and dealers was that we’re filtering out those false-positives. We’ve suggested some things and I had one dealer come up to me at NADA this year and he actually suggested that he was going to create an entirely separate network at his store to have a separate IP address just so people could still leave reviews, but they would always be replying on different machines. I thought that was interesting.

JS: But, would he be recycling the IP address?

Nick: No, so he was actually talking about setting up an entirely different network with a different IP address that he would be paying extra money to support; just to be able to capture those on site.

JS: But, you would still see that there would be multiple, multiple, multiple entries from the same IP address.

Nick: You would, and that’s the type of thing that would have to be worked out with the concept of ‘how can I really verify that they have this kiosk in the store.’ And that’s something that I called out to him and I think that’s it’s something that we could probably do if we have someone going to that extent to keep things pure, but initially it would flag something on our side and probably other places to say that the volume coming in from one location is abnormally high. That’s where you would look at voice, you look at dates they came in, you look at scores…things like that.

JS: Makes sense. This is one of the most fascinating areas so I really appreciate you giving some thoughts on that. We have kind of talked about the dealers’ fears….How do you compare yourselves to a Yelp or Google Places or something like that?

Nick: And I kind of make a distinction between those two because Google is such a aggregator of all of the content that’s out there; usually the question that I’ll get is comparing us to Dealer Rater is the big one that comes up. Usually what I tell folks is that our goal was not to set ourselves up as a competitor to any of those sites. Typically when I talk to a dealer I tell them ‘the more places you have positive reviews out there, the better off you’re going to be.’ Because then, wherever people go, because we know people love Yelp, so all the more reason to have positive reviews there. The more places you have reviews, the more likely you are to catch all those various users across sites and see ‘yes, I’m going to have a positive experience at this store.’

I think this is one of the things that I strongly believe you want the content across as many places as possible and that’s when you start playing into Google, as they aggregate from every where, so once they see that there are enough reviews out there, all of a sudden on your Places page, you have a great amount of content, coming all across the Internet. All the more reason for who sees you on Google, says ‘you know what, I am ready to work with this store.’

Going further, I actually do suggest to folks who say ‘why should I be driving volume to Cars.com, rather than Yelp or Google or to Dealer Rater or wherever.’ I tell them, ‘you know, if you’re driving volume to three places just make us the fourth one.’ Again, it’s a win because they have more content out there. But I am not in any way trying to tell them that they should drive traffic to Cars.com because we have found that when people find the sites they like that’s the site they want to leave review content on. And that’s not a bad thing, whatsoever.

Really though, what we look at is, the story I always tell is one of our affiliate sales managers here told me back in December that she was shopping for a car, and she obviously went to Cars.com, she found the exact type of car she wanted. She then narrowed it down, she found the specific vehicle she wanted and she found the dealership where she thought she wanted to shop at, and then she left our site to go do additional research about that dealership. So, I just look at it as the more ways you can integrate that fantastic review content, where people are already digesting other information, the better off you’re going to be. And that’s really the whole reason we started getting into this. I say that the more places there are reviews out there, the better it is for everyone …. It’s just a huge win.

JS: Along those lines, do you have any agreements or discussions with Google Places, with Yahoo! Local, with bing Local, any of those places to use your material?

Nick: We have. I think what you’ll find with most of those places is that they all have their secret sauce and their own way of doing things, but typically the understanding is that you have to build up a certain amount of volume to be viewed as a credible source on this type of content, so we know that once we hit that it will be a lot easier to be aggregated, but our goal is certainly that once we have the volume we will make whatever site tweaks that we need to in order to be included in the aggregation.

JS: So, you definitely want to be included in the aggregation.

Nick: Absolutely. If it gets the content out there, it adds to the SEO value, so we definitely want that out there.

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add as we wrap up the end of this?

Nick: The more places that content is our there, the better. We are certainly trying to encourage our dealers to view this as it’s an opportunity to really take control of what’s being said about you out there, so we’ve gone to the lengths of trying to provide them with various materials they can use in-store to drive volume. And again, I typically say, ‘if you’re already doing something, if you have banners for a different location, that’s fine. Just add us to the mix, one way or another. But you are driving the volume.’

I really look at it from a dealer perspective and one of the stories I heard from one of the dealers is that they’re viewing reputation management and reviews as a lead generator. So, what they do is look at it and track the number of phone calls they get, specifically from reviews, and they pay attention to the facts of how much more money can they make based on the fact that they have this great reputation that’s out there in the field. So, I’m just trying to convince people and say that this is a really good thing, assuming you really take advantage of it and you really start playing up your positive reputation, the better off it’s going to be for you.

JS: It’s interesting and we deal a lot of times with the opposite of it, where it’s not the wanting to get more leads (of course, they always want to), but when they look at online reviews and reputation management, at least in the beginning, it’s a question of ‘how can they stop any loss or perceived loss’ that is out there because they don’t have enough reviews or if there are some negative reviews out there. So, it’s really interesting to hear the flip-side of that, as well.

Nick: What we really have tried to talk to folks about, and we really have heard this over and over again, as we did our own market research…consumers kept telling us ‘you know, one negative review really isn’t the worst thing in the world and in a lot of cases it’s actually a positive. As when consumers see a lot of reviews that are all five stars as compared to similar scores that are 4.7, 4.8; that 4.7 has a lot more credibility because site users and digesters of information get the fact that every experience is not perfect and sooner or later, someone is going to have a bad day and it’s going to come off ‘not-perfect’.

So, when you do have some of those real-life experiences it’s actually a good thing. I also do try to convince people, when I do talk to them, that when you do get that person who did have a poor experience, it’s a great, great opportunity to leave the response indicating that they want to take personal responsibility for what happened, that it’s an aberration, that’s it’s not typically how you do business and you want to make sure that it goes right. Because all of a sudden, you’ve driven home to the people who come later on, that that’s not how you do business and that you really do care about each individual consumer.

So, yeah, we get it a lot, the first question of ‘what happens when I get a negative review,’ but we really do try to get people to understand that one negative review isn’t the worst thing in the world, and second there are all kind of ways for you to drive volume of positive reviews and the sooner that a dealer starts taking advantage of that and the sooner they start making it part of their process, the better off they’re going to be.

JS: My old boss used to say ‘You have two chances to meet someone….The first time you meet them and the first time you screw up.’ So along those lines, I’m a dealer and someone has just left a negative review. What mechanisms are in place to respond? Do I get to respond privately or only publicly, or am I able to respond to them at all? What are my recourses there?

Nick: This was one of the things that we debated most hotly before the launch; and so what we settled on was that anytime a review is posted the dealership always gets an opportunity to respond to it whether it’s positive or critical. And after they respond we close out the conversation. That was based on a large part on some of the feedback we heard from dealers that don’t do a lot in this space today. They were a little nervous about how much more process we’re going to build into this. So we didn’t want to get into the process of building a whole back and forth public exchange. I also think, anecdotely, I saw a decent amount of situations where that public back and forth just didn’t turn out terribly well. I think it’s just far easier, when you’re having that continued conversation, that you’re just going to regret one way or another.

The one thing that we’re keeping a very close eye on is the concept of allowing a private response before something gets posted. And originally, the way we landed is that we shied away from that because we really wanted the focus to be about your online reputation, less about a way to resolve customer service disputes. I think there’s a great amount of value in that and to be fair it’s kind of the norm in the industry right now. What we were really looking at is that we really have a substantial number of dealerships that don’t do this today and were very, very loud about the fact that they don’t want this proceeds to be complicated so we wanted it to be as simple as possible. That being said, we’re keeping a very, very close eye on the type of feedback that we get because we really need to make sure that if this is something we need to do, that we’re paying attention to it.

JS: Do you have any sort of automated notification system for the dealers if someone leaves a review or is it on them to check it themselves and monitor it daily?

Nick: We have a backend tool for dealers that we call My Dealer Center. And anytime a review is posted on Cars.com, meaning anytime it’s been through validation, moderation and it’s been approved, once it’s posted, the dealer automatically gets an email that says ‘You got a review posted on Cars.com. Please login by clicking this link and write a response to it’. We do make sure that we notify them, whether it’s a positive review or a critical one, we do notify them that it’s there and we do try to encourage them to reply to every single review not just to the ones that may be a review on a experience that was less than ideal.

JS: To me, I see a lot of fear from business owners about that….that it’s just going to be out there and they’re not going to know about it.

Nick: We definitely wanted to avoid that. I think it’s just one of those things that we saw as we got into this that there are places that have been aggregating for a long time and dealers just didn’t know what was there. So, we wanted to make sure that we are doing everything we can to warn them right off the bat.

I’d just like to publicly thank Nick and Cars.com for all their time and transparency regarding their dealer rating and review process.  If you’re shopping for a car, check them out.  Or if you’re a dealer, make sure you sign up for the My Dealer Center and start accepting reviews now!

Justin Seibert

About The Author

Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, AdAge, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

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