“If you build it, they will come.” This simple phrase may have been true for Kevin Costner’s character in the 1989 hit movie Field of Dreams, but when it comes to your dealership’s website, things get a bit more complicated.
Not only does your site need to have the content, information, and usability today’s online-oriented car shoppers are looking for, it needs to rise to the top of search results pages to attract the traffic necessary to make your Internet marketing budget pay off. You can’t just build it and wait for them—potential customers—to come. You need a proactive search strategy to attract them.
Even when you have a great website, it’s not enough for your business to be a well-known and long-established dealership, be one of the few dealers in a relatively small town, or be the only store that carries your make(s) in the area. None of these brick-and-mortar factors matter when it comes to website traffic if your dealership isn’t staying up to date with and on top of its search engine optimization (SEO), especially in an era where the primary marketing focus has been rapidly shifting from print media and broadcast television and radio to online sources.
When it comes to online marketing and your website, it’s all about traffic. But unlike the kind you have to deal with when you’re driving, in terms of search traffic, more is always a good thing. And to carry forward this analogy, there is at least one key similarity between these two types of traffic: Keeping up with it is a must. It’s risky, if not plain dangerous, to lag behind.
Luckily, when it comes to websites and search, not only can you keep up with the traffic, it’s possible to work it to your advantage in a way you can’t when driving on the road. In fact, with search, you can direct the traffic, rather than having it direct you. But to do so, it’s essential that you understand how search works and how to optimize your site for it, what mistakes to avoid, and how to stay on top of the frequent changes in search algorithms and requirements of the leading search engine providers.
Although you cannot guarantee you’ll get the results you want 100% of the time, with an intelligent, proactive, and responsive search strategy, you can steer more traffic to your dealership, increasing your leads and ultimately boosting your sales.
To succeed in search, you should understand what a search engine is and the factors that affect how it ranks and rates your website and its pages. In simple terms, a Web search engine is software accessed through a website that searches data, such as text or a database, for specific information. Best known of these are Google and Bing, although there are other contenders in the space such as Yahoo!, Ask, and more.
You don’t need to be an expert in how spiders, algorithms, and the other technical components of today’s of Web search engines actually work, fortunately. The terms you do need to know and understand don’t, fortunately, require years of learning programming languages or obtaining a computer science degree. They are fundamentally simple concepts that take considerable thought, planning, and attention to detail to execute properly.
One of these concepts is keywords. These are the words or identifiers that online users are searching for, and that search engines are looking for. You need have a keyword strategy that anticipates what your potential customers are searching for, and incorporates it into your website in the ways search engines are looking for, but without overusing or inappropriately using the words. Bombarding search engines with repetitious or inappropriate keywords will have the opposite effect you’re looking for: Your results will get worse.
Great content is another must for effective search results. It’s not enough to use the right keywords; these keywords also need to be part of high-quality content that is interesting, fresh, and accurate. Content optimization is the term that describes planning and executing your content to yield the best search results. A key point to remember: Content needs to be written for your readers, not search engines themselves. It’s a balancing act to create great content that also meets SEO requirements.
Because the ins and outs of effective keyword and content optimization for SEO are too detailed for one article, an essential source for information on best practices is Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, which can be viewed and downloaded here:
If effective deployment of keywords and a robust content optimization strategy aren’t enough to think about, search and SEO offer many other challenges and frequent changes for dealerships. For one thing, the search engines and their algorithms change frequently, and it’s up to businesses to change with them to get the best search results. The most notorious recent example is Google’s recent shift to algorithms that favor mobile-friendly sites, which began this past April and is sometimes referred to as “Mobilegeddon.”
Other important considerations in your search strategy and implementation are local rankings and social media. The former rank your business based on geography and provide map-based results. Social media is gaining important in search results because quality social sites—such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and others—are playing an increasing role in search results. So your dealership’s pages on these sites, not to mention favorable customer reviews, help drive your search results.
It’s a lot to think about. Implementing a well-rounded, effective search strategy is not a simple problem that an afternoon reading SEO for Dummies will solve. To do it right, most dealerships will need to turn to dedicated SEO professionals to make sense of it in a way to make sure that in the world of online search, they remain the ones directing the traffic, not getting lost in it.
To get the latest scoop on SEO and all other things search-related in the world of dealership websites, we sought the answers to a series of questions from three industry authorities: Janet Megee, the director of SEO and social media for Autobytel, Nikki Paladino, the SEO supervisor at L2T Media, and Dawn R. Varga, the vice president of operations at eXtéres Corporation.We found their insight and analysis of current and future trends in online search to be highly enlightening, and we thank them for sharing their wisdom and knowledge with Dealer Marketing Magazine.
Note: For the purposes of this article, our questions focused on the organic search aspect of SEO in the dealership world, rather than paid search, such as pay-per-click (PPC) and online display ads. For coverage of paid search, please see “How to Get Granular With Your Paid Search Geotargeting,” by Amy Farley of Force Marketing:
Dealer Marketing Magazine: Overall, how do you think most new car dealerships in the U.S. are doing in terms of implementing and maintaining successful search and search engine optimization practices for their websites?
Janet Megee: Many new car dealerships are putting in the on-page SEO effort to rank for brand keywords, and they do show up in the local listings. However, in each case, I have seen many opportunities that dealerships were not taking advantage of that could drive more organic traffic to their website.
Nikki Paladino: Doing SEO properly requires staying up to date on algorithm changes and adjusting best practices accordingly. This level of expertise is best achieved by using a digital media company for SEO. In our experience, new car dealerships prioritize paid search over SEO, and as a result, their websites are neglected.
In order to rank high on the search engine results page and to see organic traffic growth, websites need SEO best practices applied, like creating fresh content, building links, and on-page optimizations. Just to give an analogy of a website that’s been neglected: It’s like buying a new car but not doing routine maintenance that will prolong the life of the car. SEO best practices do change, so it’s critical to stay on top of the trends to know the search engine algorithm updates.
Dawn R. Varga: Most dealerships are doing just fine with their websites in terms of search. The automotive Web hosting companies provide limited SEO as part of the basic website package. Those dealerships that put a little more effort into their search efforts will generally outperform their competition not putting forth the same effort. This can be achieved by upgrading to a better SEO package or by using an SEO-specialized vendor to add additional targeted, unique, and relevant content, and monitor and correct anything that may be hindering higher SERP results.
DMM: What are the biggest challenges in search and SEO that dealerships face in 2015 and beyond?
JM: I expect the biggest challenges will continue to be maintaining a strong commitment to SEO and staying ahead of their competition as the local search landscape changes. Google has hundreds of algorithm updates each year. There tend to be a few updates each year that have the ability to really impact overall strategies, such as Pigeon in July 2014. As industry competition increases and search updates are refined, dealerships are going to feel even more pressure to follow a holistic approach to SEO.
NP: Search engines like Google are consistently making updates to their algorithms so they can provide the best search results for their customers. If dealerships or their vendors don’t keep up with the best practices Google has laid out to keep up with these algorithms, they will begin to see their rank in search results suffer.
DRV: The biggest challenge is providing unique, fresh website content and making frequent updates to attract search engines. Standing out amongst the competition and the inventory aggregators such as Cars.com, AutoTrader, CarGurus, etc., is key to dealership success. Keeping up with the constant changes in the search algorithms on Google and the other search engines is a full-time job. The difficulty for dealerships is that they are experts in selling and servicing cars, not in search engine optimization.
DMM: How are social media and search results related, and how can dealerships best use social media marketing to boost their SEO?
JM: Social media is really any platform where people can create and share information. With that in mind, social media platforms give you the power to take up more real estate in the search results and drive more organic traffic to your site.
My advice is to step back and consider what makes the most sense for your dealership. Rather than tackling possible social signals solely for SEO, look at what already exists when you search for your primary keywords.
If you are just getting started, an easy initial step is to embrace Google My Business and Yelp. If you already have a presence, stay engaged and respond to any negative reviews. This is a (cringeworthy) opportunity that I’ve seen neglected by many dealerships.
If you have the resources to build a quality YouTube channel, this is a great way to take up even more of the search results visually.
NP: Google My Business is the most important social media site that a dealership should be paying attention to. Having a Google My Business page gets a dealership recognized as being a real business. If you have a Google My Business page that has all your correct business information and you post regularly, Google is going to show your business in search results.
You should also post on other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter because Google looks at these sites as quality sites. If you have a presence on these sites, Google is going to see your website as a quality website. If Google thinks you’re a quality website, it’s going to have your website appear higher in search results.
DRV: Social media sites such as Google+ and Facebook are very important to search performance. A dealership with a great Google+ page that includes a significant number of positive consumer reviews showing in the search results will be the dealership website that is visited more often.
Many of the consumer review sites now show up regularly in search results, and appearing to be the better choice than your competition will contribute to more click-throughs, phone calls, appointments, and sales. Consumer referrals are the most powerful leads, while a negative reputation will deter consumers from doing business with you at all.
DMM: What is the ideal balance between local rankings and organic rankings that dealerships should strive for with their SEO?
JM: The great news is that you don’t really have to choose one over the other. There are free local listing options—Google My Business and Yelp, for example—that are most prominent in the dealership space right now. Ideally, you want to occupy as much space in the results as possible to increase your click-through rate. If it is a question of time management, I suggest you quickly set up those two pages. Then manage and grow your reviews while you optimize and grow your website for SEO.
NP: It’s all about local SEO now with automotive dealerships. With Google’s Pigeon update, automotive dealerships will only show up for search results in the area that they’re located in and the cities closest to them. Google is trying to provide the best search results for their customers, so they are only going to provide search results that are most relevant for that searcher.
DRV: Both are important, and a dealership should strive to achieve positive results in both areas. In general, the results highly depend on the search phrase entered by the consumer and the location of the consumer. SERPs will vary across the country depending on these factors. If the search phrase is location-specific, then you would hope that you perform well in the local rankings. If the search phrase is more global, then the results will more likely be organic, with performance determined by the relevance of your website content to the phrase being searched as well as the location of the searcher.
DMM: How are Google’s recently implemented mobile-ranking algorithms changing the landscape for auto dealership search and SEO?
JM: It’s no secret that mobile has been taking over the automotive shopping experience. If you didn’t have a mobile-friendly design in place before Google’s Mobilegeddon in April, you were already behind the curve. Now, if you still haven’t implemented a mobile-friendly design, you are seeing a drop in organic traffic. In the markets that I’ve tested, the majority of dealers had a mobile-friendly design in place. However, dealerships favored adaptive design over responsive design.
In the future, I suspect that responsive design will be preferred by Google (and dealerships). Technology is always changing. Changes to screen sizes are inevitable. These changes will either push dealers to update their adaptive design each time there is a change or push them toward a future-friendly responsive design.
NP: Before the Google update, it was recommended that you have websites that work on both mobile and desktop browsers if you wanted to get traffic to your website. Now, after the Google update, if you want to show up in search results and get traffic to your site, you have to have a site that works on both desktop and mobile browsers. Due to this update, most automotive websites use the responsive website design more than ever to ensure they show up on both desktop and mobile browsers.
DRV: As of last year, mobile Internet usage surpassed PC Internet usage, and the gap continues to widen. A dealership being eliminated from SERPs due to the lack of a mobile-friendly website design could be catastrophic. Even though dealerships will still display in local results, they could potentially lose more than half of their organic website traffic without a functional mobile site.
DMM: In terms of website content, what are “must haves” and “must do’s” for obtaining the best search results?
JM: You must have a keyword strategy and you must keep it clean. This is an area where many companies, not just automotive, have tried to cut corners. As a result, Google has launched numerous updates to clean up the search results.
If you find yourself pushing content for the sake of Google and not consumers, stop. Ask yourself whether you are trying to game Google or win long-term customers. If your SEO strategy includes fresh, interesting, and informative content, you won’t feel the need to game the system.
Keep in mind, Google is dialed into consumer pain points. If a consumer bounces from your website right back into Google’s search, there is a disconnect between what they searched for and what they received. Those bounces give Google value-ranking indicators about your site that will impact where you fall in the search results.
NP: [First,] every page on a website should have custom content that’s written specifically for that dealership and that page. [Next,] every page should have an H1 or H2 header tag for the content. [Finally,] content should include custom keywords that link to other pages on a website.
DRV: Dealership websites must be focused on unique, readable, and relevant content as opposed to the generic, template website designs that we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Responsive, dynamic Web pages, including mobile-friendly designs, are a must. Putting in the extra effort to determine the most relevant search phrases in your market and customizing your website SEO content in those phrases will result in better search results.
What kind of experiences, good and bad, has your dealership had with website search and SEO? Dealer Marketing Magazine wants to hear about your experiences to better understand your needs for future coverage of this topic. Please share your thoughts, comments, and questions with us via our Twitter account (@DealerMarketing) or by email to [email protected].
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