These days, a dealer can assume that most every customer that comes through the store’s doors has searched the Internet once or twice before deciding on a dealership to try out.
But how and when are shoppers turning to search engines, dealership websites and third-party sites during the shopping process?
For a special "Advertising Ideas for Dealers" section in the Dec. 1–15 issue of Auto Remarketing, we talked to industry experts in an effort to answer these questions, and figure out just how profitable search-engine marketing and optimization efforts are for dealers.
And a new white paper from AutoTrader.com aims to shed some light on how shoppers utilize these online tools.
The white paper, titled “Digital Audience Analysis: Understanding Online Car Shopping Behavior and Sources of Traffic to Dealer Websites,” provides insights about “the actual behaviors of online shoppers that dealers and OEMs can — and should — use to reach more shoppers and convert them into buyers,” the company said.
The paper leverages proprietary data and technology via AutoTrader.com; Kelley Blue Book and selected partner sites as well as Adobe technology were partners in the study.
The digital audience analysis looked at the online behavior of more than 3 million car shoppers across 1,300 active dealership websites to better understand what sites car shoppers visit, their on-site activity, how they navigate across a variety of automotive sites and the overlap among the sites they visit.
How Are Shoppers Using Search Engines?
Though some industry experts believe that search engines are used much like third-party sites — in other words, as a means for shoppers to find the kind of car they want to purchase — AutoTrader presented a different view.
As the white paper indicates, the company does not think consumers use search engines to actually shop for vehicles; rather, they are searching for the dealership’s location or a store website.
“Our research indicates that car shoppers often use search engines to locate businesses or products that they may have already been exposed to previously. That is, they use other automotive shopping sites to learn about vehicles and dealerships, and then use search engines to locate a dealership, find more information about the dealership or access the dealership website,” said Allyson Estes, senior director of customer marketing at AutoTrader.
Basically, Estes contends that shoppers are using third-party sites and other automotive shopping sites to learn about vehicles and dealerships. Then, they use search engines to locate a dealership.
“By understanding how and when shoppers use search engines, dealers can more effectively allocate their time and their budget for marketing initiatives,” she added.
Kevin Filan, vice president of customer marketing at AutoTrader, chimed in, explaining that dealers may have the “wrong” idea about how shoppers are utilizing search engines while looking for a new vehicle.
“There is a gap between perception and reality when it comes to the role of search in the car-shopping process, which could be leading dealers to over invest in search marketing at the expense of more effective sources,” Filan said.
“Shoppers are using search engines, but what dealers should be focusing on is how and when shoppers are using those tools. Our research shows that for a large portion of shoppers, search engines are an intermediary step where they go to find something they’ve already been exposed to previously,” he continued.
Both the execs as well as the white paper highlighted that search engines are mostly being used as directories and as a “path” to dealership websites.
“Initial analysis of the data used for the Digital Audience Analysis white paper shows that shoppers who visit a search engine immediately before arriving at dealership web sites often use branded search terms or keywords, such as the dealership’s name,” the paper states.
And according to Jason Ezell, president of Dataium, of the 50 percent to 65 percent of traffic that dealers receive from search engines, more 78 percent of those consumers use the dealer name or some variation of it as a key word, almost as if the shopper was using search engines as a digital phone book.
“Dealers’ websites are one of the primary ways they connect with potential customers, and when they see the bulk of traffic to their sites coming from search engines, it makes sense that they would drive more of their marketing dollars into paid search,” Ezell said.
“Because our study was able to look beyond direct referral traffic, however, we found that the majority of search engine traffic comes as a result of a consumer typing a variation of the dealership name into the search field. In other words, consumers are forming impressions earlier in the process, likely via other forms of media; search engines are often the taxi taking them to the place they’ve already decided they want to go,” he continued.
Ezell was referring to a recent study from Dataium and Cars.com that also looked into the efficiency of dealer online advertising, and highlighted similar trends
The study report explained that nearly 80 percent of direct referrals from search engines during the study were driven by keywords that were a variation on the dealership name.
“In addition, this search activity suggests that these shoppers had been familiarized with the dealership prior to their visit to the search engine,” the report stated, further explaining that search engines are being used to find dealerships the shopper has already decided to visit.
The study, conducted between January and June, measured the activity of more than 20 million automotive shoppers per month on Dataium’s network and focused on evaluating the direct and indirect value of the two primary dealer advertising investments: paid search-engine marketing and automotive marketplaces.
Editors Note: For more information on new advertising trends as well as uses for SEO and SEM in the dealership, see the Dec. 1–15 issue of Auto Remarketing.