It’s the next big thing; the silver bullet and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Dealers nationwide are being promised that search is the answer to all their advertising needs, but is it all it’s cracked up to be?

To seal the deal online, you need a comprehensive internet strategy that allows you to merchandise your new- and used-car listings, promote your store and encourage car buyers to take the next step toward a purchase by contacting you. While search may play a role in your advertising mix, it should not be viewed as a replacement for your third-party shopping sites and lead providers. Vendor hype positioning search as such are not only are inaccurate, but they also misrepresent how car buyers shop online.

Put a Lot of Hooks in the Water

While most car buyers use the internet in their purchase process, not every one follows the same path to the dealership. Studies show that consumers consult several sites to research their options and minimize the risk of making a bad decision. In fact, 67 percent of shoppers credit the internet with helping them select their make and model; 53 percent report the internet helped them find the right dealer. (1)

To maximize your reach among these prospects, you need a credible presence in each channel (e.g., promoting your new- and used-car listings on a third-party shopping site such as and buying pay-per-click advertising on leading search engines such as Google and Yahoo!). The idea is simple: You want to remain an active candidate in your would-be customers’ consideration set and win as much of their business as possible.

You likely follow a similar strategy in your offline media mix. Rather than advertise only in the newspaper or on TV, you oversee a carefully crafted advertising budget that includes print, broadcast, outdoor and direct mail. Why? You’ve learned that each of these channels serves a distinct purpose. Radio may help reinforce your brand while newspapers can help promote the specific vehicles you hope to sell. No one tactic could replace all the others.

We know that, online, car buyers are equally diverse in their habits. Internet shoppers rarely go directly to a dealer’s website, preferring instead to visit multiple independent sites where they can identify vehicles that match their needs, read objective reviews about their performance and reliability and learn about the dealers who have these cars in stock. From there, the shopper can contact you for more information by phone, email or a walk-in visit. He or she can also click on a link directing them to your store’s site and begin reaching out to you there.

Determine Your Threshold for Risk

If you decide search engine marketing should be part of your media mix, safeguard your investment by taking the time to identify your objectives, outline the scope, allocate a budget and develop a plan to minimize your exposure should things go wrong. While search campaigns deliver real results, significant expertise, time and money must often be invested to make them successful. Once underway, search also requires ongoing fine-tuning and investment to keep pace with evolving best practices, changes in search engine methodologies and the availability of new tools to manage bids and monitor performance.

Search engine marketing campaigns are dynamic, blending both art and science and requiring the oversight of an adaptive, flexible manager. Options to consider include:

  • Hire an external agency. Working with a reputable company that specializes in search is the quickest and most efficient way to get your campaign up and running, but the expertise doesn’t come cheap. If a vendor promises you significant savings versus your advertising spend on third-party shopping sites, insist you receive details on how real they will be.
  • Redeploy internal staff. Tasking an employee with learning the ropes and managing your search program may be less expensive than working with an agency, but it also exposes you to potentially costly beginner’s mistakes, false starts and disappointing results. Such innocent blunders not only diminish immediate lead volume and quality, but they also can invoke severe penalties from the search engines. Companies have found their landing pages blocked from appearing on results pages, for example, and had to pursue lengthy appeals procedures to remove the ban.
  • Implement a hybrid model. Hiring a person with search engine campaign experience to join your internet department may be a good middle-ground solution for your store. Although you may have to train them on automotive retail, these individuals can provide the knowledge and attention to detail you need to implement effective campaigns. This option promises to cost less than an outside agency and minimizes the risk of time- and money-wasting mistakes presented by going with a well-intentioned novice.

Look Behind the Myths

In promoting search as a one-stop solution, vendors typically talk in ideal scenarios and gloss over the complexity of implementing a successful campaign. Rather than ensuring your program integrates with other advertising initiatives, these companies play on market uncertainty and the prospect of lower costs/higher grosses to win your advertising budget.

Consider the facts:

  • Search can be costly. As adoption of pay-per-click advertising accelerates in the automotive industry, search campaigns become more expensive. You, your competitors and the vehicle manufacturers ultimately compete for the same keywords and phrases, increasing the cost and complexity of managing your portfolio. Fail to include the appropriate negative keywords and rely on broad terms, for example, and you could find your budget for the month is exhausted within the first few days.
  • Search produces uneven lead quality. Not everyone who lands on your website after clicking your paid listing on a search engine results page is ready to make a purchase. These visitors may be just beginning their shopping process by looking for information on the vehicles they’re considering, or they may simply want pictures of a car they like. By contrast, shoppers who connect with your site from one of your listings advertised on a third-party shopping site are more likely to take action, sending an e-mail lead or picking up the phone to call your dealership.
  • Search yields duplicate leads. Exclusive leads simply do not exist. Car buyers visit several sites during their shopping process and typically request information about pricing and availability through multiple channels. A shopper interested in a vehicle you have in inventory, particularly on the new side of the house, likely has reached out to one or more of your competitors.
  • Search is not a comprehensive lead source. Car buyers rely on several online sources of information to research the vehicle they’re considering and to identify the stores where they’ll purchase. Choosing not to use other online tools as part of your internet strategy will very likely cost you business. According to J.D. Power and Associates studies:
    • 88 percent of used-car shoppers visit independent sites, while 71 percent use dealers’ sites. (2)
    • 51 percent of new-car shoppers rate independent sites as the most useful, while 7 percent prefer dealers’ sites. (3)
  • Search does not build your store’s brand. When car buyers land on search engine results pages, the listings are largely undifferentiated. If the prospect is unfamiliar with your store’s name, he or she is more likely to click on the known dealership(s). By contrast, third-party shopping sites typically feature visually appealing display ads that allow you to promote your store’s brand and encourage shoppers to click on your listings.

Join the Search Party?

Given the changing economy, you may find yourself rethinking your internet advertising strategy and searching for innovative tactics that can help you generate new business. Whether your store sells 30 cars a month or 300, search engine marketing can play a meaningful part in your advertising program – provided you have the know-how and processes in place to effectively manage the campaigns. Integrate search with your other online initiatives so that each works in parallel with the other, and you’ll position yourself to reach individual shoppers at the optimal point in the shopping process. Anything less and you may find yourself the one who’s lost – not connecting with buyers you otherwise would have reached and, in your absence, driving them to your competitors.


1. J.D. Power and Associates 2007 Used Study

2. J.D. Power and Associates 2007 Used Study

3. J.D. Power and Associates 2007 New Study