Although it’s been more than 20 years since the first publicly accessible Internet evolved into the World Wide Web we all know and use daily—or more likely, hourly—it took many more years before its full benefits as a platform for business marketing and commerce were realized.
Improved video technology, tighter security protocols, greater availability of Internet access and faster bandwidth for users, and more widespread consumer adoption of computers (and later, mobile devices) were all necessary before the Internet became fully viable as a must-have advertising, marketing, and then e-commerce tool for businesses.
But that all seems like distant past now. It’s certainly true in the case of the auto industry. Manufacturer websites have been around since at least 1996, although a trip to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine (www.archive.org) reveals how crude and barely functional most early examples were. Dealership websites go way back as well, but it’s not so easy to determine what was the first auto dealership to create a website to advertise and market its business. (If you know the answer, please share it with us.)
Time to “go small”
The early automotive-related websites seem about as closely related to the sophisticated, complex, information- and technology-rich sites of today as tin-can-and-string “telephones” do to the latest smartphone offerings from Apple, LG, Samsung, and the like.
Which is an apt comparison to make, because not only have business websites become more expansive and complex, they’ve also had to adapt to a major technological shift in how consumers access and view websites. That shift: They’ve “gone small.” No longer are the majority of Internet consumers sitting at a desktop or laptop screen that’s usually 13 inches or larger. Much more than half the time, they are accessing websites on their smartphone or tablet.
Research company Enders Analysis reported that by early 2014, for the first time, Internet access via mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets had topped that of desktop and laptop computers. The percentage of users who access the Internet solely by mobile topped 60% last year and is climbing rapidly.
This number will continue to soar, driven by a key soon-to-be-car-buyers demographic: Pew Research reported this past April that 91% of teenagers go online via mobile devices. Their millennial siblings and peers—a large percentage of your customers of today—are not far behind in terms of usage percentage.
Bottom line: Mobile-friendly websites are not only the future, they’re the present. And the present arrived particularly quickly thanks to a recent change by Google in its search engine rankings. On April 21, Google launched its new mobile-oriented search algorithms into its page rankings. In short, these revised algorithms factor in the mobile-friendliness of a Web page, penalizing it for such drawbacks as horizontal scrolling or unplayable content.
Websites with pages that are determined to be mobile-unfriendly by these new Google algorithms may find their search page results downgraded, making them less prominent to consumers—exactly the opposite of what you need when marketing your business.
For years, functional, intuitive, and aesthetically appealing sites have been a must for dealership marketing. Now, because of the soaring mobile-device usage rates and Google’s new search algorithms, these websites also have to scale down to offer all the same features and functionality to consumers as before, but on the much smaller visual landscape of a smartphone or tablet.
Responsive website design is a term that wasn’t in the vocabulary of many people in the automotive industry until recently, being a term that even techies didn’t adopt until 2010 or so. Rapidly, however, “Is it responsive?” is the question dealers are asking their Web designers because of the current need to go small.
To put it simply, a responsive website is one that is designed to optimize the viewing experience of a user on a website, regardless of the platform—smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. An optimized experience means reading and navigating the site is easy, with a minimum amount of panning, resizing, or scrolling. In other words, responsive Web design is the key that unlocks today’s necessity of mobile-friendly sites.
Yet mastering the technical challenges of effective website marketing is not the only issue dealerships face. Creating a dealership website that works as a marketing and sales tool is not solely in the hands of Web developers—far from it. Aesthetics, content, and unique features have to be up to par as well. Now more than ever, a dealership website has to combine state-of-the-art Web design technology with robust and detailed product information, original content, and more to attract and retain customers. It’s a big ask.
To get the scoop on how auto dealers can face the often-daunting current and future website marketing challenges, Dealer Marketing Magazine sought the opinions of a number of auto industry and website experts: Barry Hillier, partner and chief visionary officer of Dashboard and Octane; Ali Amirrezvani, the CEO of DealerOn; Jessica Ruth, websites sales engineer, and Adam Dennis, vice president of product development, of Dominion Dealer Solutions; and Phil Penton, managing partner and strategy, of XCite Advertising. Thanks to all the participants for their insights and analysis of this complex and essential aspect of dealership business.
Dealer Marketing Magazine: Is it better for an individual dealership to strive to create a website with a unique, distinctive look and feel that differentiates it from those of other dealers and brands, or is it wiser to go with a more tried-and-true format that feels familiar and intuitive to consumers who are cross-shopping?
Barry Hillier: It’s best to give consumers what they want and to be intuitive, but I would challenge being familiar. Why? Because presenting your dealership in a fresh way while demonstrating your uniqueness is key to making you competitive. By being unique and recognizing that your brand is comprised of your vehicles, your manufacturer, and your own dealership identity, you can own a consumer experience where consumers realize that buying a car from you isn’t simply buying a commodity they could get anywhere. You’re the third reason to purchase a particular vehicle and brand.
Ali Amirrezvani: For best results (leads, phone calls, sales, etc.) it’s more important to go with a tested/optimized layout as opposed to a distinctive, unique look and feel. When a consumer visits a dealership website they’re looking for a specific car, they’re not evaluating your website aesthetics. Make sure your design doesn’t distract or disrupt your visitors from getting what they came for and you’ll be on the right track.
Jessica Ruth: What dealerships do not want to do is confuse their shoppers by trying to create a website that they think or hope will convert shoppers, but unfortunately hides or complicates the path to inventory and service. Ultimately, an effective dealership website will lead the shopper to their goal (inventory or service) quickly and transparently, while creating a trusting and friendly experience. That won’t happen by blending in or by standing out so dramatically that the website confuses the consumer.
Phil Penton: Dealers need to take a look at their current marketing strategy and find what fits them best. Today, I believe most dealers are best served using a more tried-and-true website vendor. The amount of work that goes into a custom website might not yield the additional traffic/conversions a dealer was hoping for. Also, finding a nonautomotive website vendor to understand this space is extremely difficult, and the project can be expensive.
DMM: For smaller dealerships without the resources or budget to create and maintain elaborate websites, what are now the basic must-haves for a site to be an effective marketing and lead-generation tool?
BH: Your dealership is your second storefront and the first store that your consumers go to when they begin their shopping experience. You have to invest accordingly. Given the fact that there are great CMS platforms that deliver strong, engaging consumer experiences starting from hundreds of dollars, there isn’t a reason to give consumers anything but a great reflection of your dealership. Ask to see the big and small vendors and get peer reviews before selecting the right CMS for your dealership.
AA: Even dealers who have limited budgets can still make sure that their websites deliver maximum value for their investments . . . dealers with smaller budgets can insist on a clear, easy-to-navigate homepage—ideally one that’s been A/B tested and optimized by their provider—and conversion-optimized search and vehicle details pages (VDP). Ideally, they will invest time to pick a website layout that includes multiple methods for shoppers to search and find vehicles.
Last but not least, every dealer, regardless of its size, should insist on a mobile-optimized website. Google recommends responsive, especially in light of the April 21, 2015’s “Mobilegeddon”—Google’s emphasis on mobile-friendliness as a search-ranking factor.
JR: The best lead-generation tools can be free. Skip all the various call-to-action buttons hoping the shopper will fill at least one out, and be transparent with your pricing and why-buy message. Be sure to keep up-to-date reviews with recent successful customers on your website.
PP: You must have solid website reporting, so you can understand how to better maximize your advertising budget. If you understand the actions that drive leads on your website, you can focus your advertising budget to drive more traffic to those places. Focus on your vehicle display page traffic and the conversion from those pages. For free, or for a little investment, you can track your changes to the VDP and find what changes drive more leads.
DMM: Is it a must to have unique content on top of thorough inventory information, detailed VDP pages, and up-to-date social media integration? If so, what type of additional content is most effective with consumers?
BH: Yes. This will be increasingly the case as Google [continues to shift] to include contextual search and peer and social reviews into its search. Consumers are looking to peers and third-party reviews and comparisons during their research phase. Companies like MotoFuze and Mobials are providing tools that integrate into your website to ensure that peer reviews and comparisons are available for an informed decision about your dealership and your vehicles.
AA: Obviously, it is ideal for a dealer to have unique content and social media, but realistically, all dealers have some marketing budget limits. If your dealership is resource-constrained, it’s more important to prioritize your budget on a high-converting website than on some of these other “nice-to-haves.” If you do have the resources to build unique content on your website, an integrated blog (within your dealership’s site, not on a secondary site or on a subdomain) is a great place to start. Another great focus for those resources would be on building content and managing your dealership’s presence on local directories, like YP.com (yellowpages.com), Yelp, Local.com, Whitepages.com, CitySearch, etc. Local citations are one of the most important factors for local search engine optimization (SEO), and one that many dealers have overlooked in the past.
JR: Now is not the time to slow down on unique content. Including unique content will continue to benefit a dealership’s website, and ensures that the content remains as Google updates its algorithm. In addition to what is listed, if you haven’t already, add unique vehicle comparison pages and unique why-buy and why-service: Do you have massage chairs, cafes, the only express service center around, etc.?
PP: Yes. You need to provide more content that allows the consumer to do their research within your website. If you don’t provide quality content about your vehicles, consumers will leave your site and find the information they are looking for somewhere else; most likely a third-party site. Provide your visitors with vehicle reviews and articles comparing new models and feature comparisons.
DMM: What are some up-and-coming or underutilized features that dealerships can incorporate to make their sites more sticky and increase lead generation?
BH: ContentFuze from MotoFuze is a great social marketing CMS that allows your dealership to engage your consumers in a relevant and timely manner while increasing your leads. It provides the ability to compare, research, and review vehicles in an authentic and believable manner. Gamification—through engaging tools such as RevUps and available through Octane—also allows for greater conversion on your website and more detailed analytics that increase lead conversion and consumer insights.
AA: Stickiness is all about engagement, and dealership website visitors engage with search options and visuals like pictures, videos, color, type, mileage, price, etc. With regard to up-and-coming or underutilized lead generation features, we see dealers having great success with behavioral-targeted incentives customized to the shopper’s behavior.
JR: Adding feature after feature is not a long-term solution. An investment in the future of your dealership website is ensuring you’re integrating all your efforts back to the website, avoiding any type of brand confusion. You’re likely doing paid search, direct mail, third-party leads, managing your reputation, sending out surveys, and on and on, but what happens next? What happens when someone opens an email from their phone and follows that service special link over to your site? Is it the same experience as if it was opened on their desktop or tablet? Adding a feature might appear to win a battle, but it certainly doesn’t win a war.
PP: Two major trends: (1) OEM build data for every vehicle stocked in your inventory, new and used. Consumers today better understand the vehicle they are looking for, new or used. That means they also understand the features they want on a vehicle. Consumers are not asking if the vehicle has power windows or power locks; they’re asking: Does this vehicle have the premium package? (2) Consumers want full-motion video, not images stitched together. They want real video walking them around the outside and inside the vehicle, showcasing the vehicle features. As an added benefit: Google also loves full-motion video, especially when it is also integrated with YouTube.
DMM: How will auto dealerships be affected by Google’s introduction of a tougher mobile-ranking algorithm in April that will penalize pages without adequately responsive, mobile-friendly design? Will many dealerships be caught off-guard and scrambling to optimize for mobile?
BH: Yes, many will, but technology changes very quickly each year. In saying this, mobile has been growing in importance yearly. Adaptive and responsive design has been a hot topic in conferences over the past few years. There is no reason that dealerships should be caught off-guard other than poor vendor performance. If your dealership doesn’t have a mobile site strategy that is ready today, you need to find another website vendor. They have no excuse to be caught off-guard. This is what they do.
AA: No one knows for sure how auto dealership sites will be affected, except that Google has promised that these changes won’t impact desktop traffic results and that they will penalize sites that do not conform to Google’s mobile best practices for usability and load times. Dealers should ask their website providers to use the Webmaster Tools URL for mobile usability, available at www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-usability.
Adam Dennis: Dealers should use Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to review their website to see how it performs. This is the best way for them to identify problems. Once the problems are identified, they can modify their site so it meets Google’s performance requirements for responsive mobile design. At Dominion Web, in 2014 we integrated the PageSpeed Insights tool’s performance requirements into our design process, deployment process, and our app itself.
We evaluate our sites before we turn them over to a dealer to manage. I highly recommend that dealers test their sites and then contact their vendor, [who can help them] create very attractive Google-compliant sites and maintain the site for optimum performance over time. Such professional PageSpeed Insights management is absolutely critical. If a site is not properly maintained, the score can decline as changes are made.
PP: Dealers and website vendors are going to have to rethink their strategies. Google is going to serve up websites that provide a good user experience, and making sure a website is mobile-ready is going to be major factor in getting your site ranked. Some dealers may be caught off-guard because their website vendor did not keep their technology current. All dealers need to talk with their website vendor to better understand their technology.
Dealership website marketing is an increasingly complicated, time-consuming endeavor that is essential for dealers to get right and stay on top of. So much is involved in making an effective website, both in terms of content and technology, that now more than ever, it needs to be the result of a productive collaboration between dealers and Web designers or vendors. We welcome your thoughts and comments to this article below, or by email to [email protected].
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