Using Google Insights to Take the Pulse of Car Buyers

According to Rich Sands, director of automotive operations for researcher J.D. Power and Associates, the only times an automaker can truly influence the success of a new vehicle is before and at the time of its launch.

Sands said J.D. Power has been able to provide automakers with a lot of information that helped them during the launch and pre-launch periods, but it needed a tool that gave a more “real-time” quality to its Launch Assurance Program.

“We needed to come up with a real-time synopsis of what was going on in the marketplace,” said Sands.

One way of taking that marketplace pulse is to see what people are searching for on the Internet. And since Google remains the king of Web searching, there is obvious value in knowing details about the activities of prospective auto buyers conducting Google searches.

J.D. Power didn’t need to spend a dime to attain the search trend insights it wanted. It merely began using Google’s still-in-beta trend tool Insights for Search, said Sands.

The Web-based tool, essentially an advanced version of Google Trends, is giving J.D. Power a good picture of automotive search trends — information that can be customized in all sorts of ways. Sands believes it might help the struggling automakers avoid car design and launch pitfalls.

“Before we had this, we would rely on our industry experts who have come to us after many years in the automotive field,” said Sands. He said J.D. Power also gets a great deal of inside information using its proprietary data network in which car dealers provide it with daily retail transaction data.

Insights for Search can be used by anybody, not just those interested in the automotive industry, but Google’s automotive director Bonita Stewart said the tool is being widely used by people and companies connected to the automotive industry.

In a demo for ClickZ, Stewart showed how Insights for Search offers numerous ways to narrow searches by category, timeframe, region and other variables. Those adept at using the tool can find out, down to the city, what types of vehicles are being searched by Google users. Of course, the tool provides much more information than that, including a ranking of keywords.

“We can isolate timeframes,” said Stewart. “We can start to look at predictive ways of measuring the market. People are now looking at 2009 cars and it’s interesting that searches about Smart Carsand electric cars are rising. Korean makes are rising and Mazda, which recently launched a new vehicle, they’re showing up in terms of rising searches as well.”

Using graphs, the tool shows changes in search activity relating to events such as gas price ebbs and flows. It showed that searches for trucks and SUVs declined only 0.3 percent in recent months despite the fact that overall sales of those gas-guzzlers dropped significantly more.

Stewart, citing J.D. Power, said 75 percent of automotive shoppers are now Web users and 84 percent of those are using search engines to get automobile-related information. “It has grown,” she said. “I remember when it was 50 percent and then 60 percent.”

Just because Insights for Search is free doesn’t mean Google is totally benevolent. Stewart said the tool “is creating a broader partnership” between Google and its auto industry clients.

As J.D. Power’s Sands noted, the tool sheds no insight into searches conducted on other search engines. However, given Google’s dominance, J.D. Powers is confident the Insight for Search results paint an accurate picture. “You take that piece of the pie and look at it and it gives some directional indication such as whether there is interest in a particular brand of vehicle,” said Sands.

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