New Research Shows How Search Drives Auto Buyers

  |  November 29, 2006   |  Comments

A new study offers interesting insights into searcher behavior in the huge automotive segment, with lessons for search marketers working in all fields.

A recent study from Yahoo and comScore offers some interesting insights into searcher behavior in the huge automotive segment, with lessons for search marketers working in all fields.

Researchers tracked the click stream data of a subset of thousands of comScore users for three months, conducting follow-up interviews with 342 users. They sought to answer questions about the scope of auto-related search activity, and the effectiveness and user perceptions of the key groups of search marketers within the segment.

During the three months, 45 percent of the U.S. population visited automotive Web sites, amounting to 716 million unique visits. "We were incredibly surprised at just how large this market is," said David Schwartz, senior manager of automotive category, Yahoo Search Marketing, who presented the findings in an online Webinar.

In the automotive universe, there are three types of Web sites, Schwartz explained:

  • The OEM (define) universe

  • Top-tier lead aggregators that provide Internet users with quotes and information, allowing customers to find a nearby dealership and submit a request for sales help (a lead for the dealership)

  • What Yahoo considers second-tier aggregators -- smaller players that act like small-scale affiliates to provide leads to local dealerships

According to Schwartz, there's conflict among these groups. The OEM players are reluctant to share leads with aggregators and often have issues with aggregators using their brand names in both search optimization and paid search campaigns. The aggregators, which have dominated the sector until recently, feel the increasing presence of OEM players has reduced search ad inventory and SEO (define) opportunities for them.

The study finds, however, that most users visited the OEM and first-tier sites more than second-tier aggregators. Most visiting the second-tier sites were already far down the buying process and much closer to making a purchase decision.

Despite the large numbers of users visiting automotive Web sites, the study finds only 6 percent engaged in actual shopping behavior. However, these users represented 36 percent of total visits — 4.6 million customers with over 250 million visits, or more than 50 visits each.

Of these "engaged shoppers," as Schwartz labeled them, ultimately more than 77 percent either bought a car or said they were planning on buying a car within a year.

What types of queries were used? Seventy-seven percent were related to specific model research. Fifty-six percent were looking to find a dealer, but only 32 percent requested a quote on a specific car model. However, Schwartz thinks that evaluating results solely on a cost-per lead basis understates search's effectiveness.

Said Schwartz, "We think that this falls short due to the fact that there are many shoppers that will be significantly influenced by what they find online but will never submit a lead," going on to purchase a car offline.

He said a more appropriate metric would be an "engagement score" that factors in other marketing efforts as well as purchases made without any explicit online "shopping behavior." This means search marketers should evaluate all advertising and marketing programs (search ads, banners, e-mail, print, and television advertising) on the same playing field.

This is especially true since the study finds that just 9 percent of visitors to auto sites used search to find the sites. Direct navigation was a far more common means of reaching a Web site.

The study also finds search can play an important role in influencing opinion and even help change minds. Forty percent of those responding said search reinforced what they already thought, but 60 percent changed their minds over models or other factors after searching and visiting a number of Web sites.

When asked which types of sites consumers preferred, respondents singled out OEM sites as preferred sources for exploring different car options and accessories, and providing in-depth car information. By contrast, aggregators were preferred for helping consumers actually shop for specific cars and dealers when they were ready to make a purchase.

Users also expressed a strong preference for getting quotes from aggregators rather than OEM manufacturers. Schwartz said that rapid response to user requests, with speed and often better pricing, is the key differentiator for aggregators.

At least for now, users prefer to use OEM sites for research and aggregators for pricing and quote information. This means it's imperative for brands to have a consistent and consolidated communication platform across all media, and to play nice with the aggregators to avoid alienating customers.

Rather than worrying about aggregators poaching traffic using branded keywords, manufacturers should focus on providing richer, more informative Web sites to help influence buying decisions. And aggregators, as long as they continue to move quickly, providing what's perceived as rapid, competitive, and objective quotes, can continue to compete against the much more well-heeled OEM players.

Meet Chris at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 4-7, at the Hilton Chicago.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Chris Sherman

In addition to being Associate Editor of ClickZ's sister publication,, Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to Online Magazine, EContent, Information Today and other information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.

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