Autobytel Hopes to Usher in Second Phase of Automobile Search

In early February, Autobytel announced its plans to launch of, which the company calls “the world’s first fully-integrated automotive vertical search experience.” Set to officially debut during the second quarter of 2007, will offer consumers a comprehensive array of information related to “the automotive purchase and ownership lifecycle.” The new site, which integrates automotive content with categorized auto search results, will also provide dealers, manufacturers and other service providers with multiple “marketing touch points.”

How significant is this development? Well, the automotive industry has changed dramatically since my father was the director of marketing for Oldsmobile back in the 1980s. (Yes, it was my father’s Oldsmobile.)

And, shortly after Al Gore “invented the Internet,” Autobytel invented the “automotive Internet” in 1995 – turning the car-buying process on its ear. Since then, the company has been a leading innovator in the industry, introducing some of the most advanced products and services to help automotive marketers.

Now, in 2007, the company is once again poised to reinvent the automotive Internet – by launching a vertical search site.

The Second Phase of Automobile Search?

Search has become an increasingly important part of car buying experience. According to a study conducted by Yahoo/Compete in 2005, 70 percent of car buyers reported that the first place they turned to was a search engine, and the same percentage indicating that they used search throughout the entire research and buying process. However, consumers are often overwhelmed by the search results, and almost a third of all searches are abandoned without yielding satisfactory results.

“It’s clear we are about to enter the second phase of online automobile search,” says Neal Polachek, senior VP of The Kelsey Group. “While user behaviors, knowledge and expectations have evolved over the last 5 to 10 years, most sites in the auto category have not kept pace. Integrated vertical search products that marry the best aspects of Web search with rich category content and address today’s broader spectrum of consumer interests are the next logical step in this and many other high-value categories.”

Autobytel hopes to take this next logical step with its “next generation” automotive vertical search site,

“Vertical search is already providing tremendous value for consumers and businesses in industries like travel, real estate, and health. And yet the world’s largest industry – involving one of the most expensive and complex consumer purchases – has failed to move beyond third-party sites, which often wall-out important and useful information,” said James Riesenbach, Autobytel’s president and CEO. “Meanwhile, general search engines are not built to interpret and deliver the most relevant results within a specific category like automotive. We’re excited to take the lead on an idea whose time has definitely come in our industry.”

I recently interviewed Riesenbach, who was senior VP of AOL’s search and directional media group from 2001 to 2006. Mark Canon, the company’s senior VP and chief product officer, gave me a demo of Canon is also an AOL alum, having been VP of product development for AOL Search before he and Riesenbach left 10 months ago. is designed to provide a comprehensive and easy-to-use experience, through a combination of auto-related content and classifieds listings, “Automotive SmartSearch,” and multimedia resources, Riesenbach said. is aimed at helping consumers as much as providing marketing opportunities for the automotive industry, he said. integrates focused content and search results that cover the entire spectrum of automotive experience – from purchase to ownership, enhancement and enthusiast behaviors. It also breaks through the so-called “walled garden” of the current auto site model. While other automotive Internet sites focus on driving consumers through the purchase funnel, lets the consumer move back and forth through the research, shopping, buying and ownership process.

“ makes it incredibly easy for consumers to quickly get to the most relevant automotive information they need from across the entire Web. We know that consumers tire of jumping from site to site, or sifting through thousands of irrelevant search results to get to useful automotive information,” Riesenbach said.

Using, consumers can find a new or used car, car parts, accessories, and even a local business for service and repair, based on a tightly-focused combination of relevant content and auto-related Web search results and user-generated content. According to Canon, the site should have 3.5 to 4 million vehicles, 1 to 1.3 million parts and accessories, and 400,000 to 500,000 businesses by the time it is officially launched to consumers in late April or early May.

Using a proprietary publishing platform, was designed from the ground up to bring together best-in-class technologies and content from a wide range of third party providers, Canon said. This includes Vast, a comprehensive used car database with an inventory of millions of vehicles; as well as vertical search engine Kosmix, which offers an automotive search product. Additional relationships with auto accessories and parts providers and local directory products will offer users content covering nearly all aspects of the automotive experience cycle.

Interpreting User Behavior

One of the most compelling elements of the demo that I saw was the way the site has been designed to evolve, adapt, and interpret consumer behavior. This will enable to respond to user questions, create content based on them and, over time, adapt the system to address the interests and most pressing needs of its users. Consumer generated content will also play a key role in as the site evolves, informing future car buying and ownership decisions by allowing users to participate via surveys, blogs, polls, reviews and ratings. also takes automotive multimedia to the next level, going well beyond the typical postage stamp-sized photos and limited video that characterize most automotive sites. It will include several innovative visual elements, such as full-screen vehicle images from the largest online auto photo gallery, as well as extensive video assets and capabilities. Relevant multimedia content will be integrated throughout the search and navigational experience, not just segregated in “galleries” as on many other sites.

Since is designed to gather consumer behavior throughout the automotive lifecycle and is designed to interpret users’ intent, automotive marketers should have more opportunities to market to a much larger and more targeted, population than ever before. In addition, Autobytel member dealers will have the opportunity to remain in front of potential buyers no matter where they are in the purchase cycle.

Riesenbach concluded, “As we reinvent the automotive Internet with we expect to become the foremost automotive destination for consumers and the place where automakers and dealers connect, efficiently and effectively, with their customers.”

And, based on the sneak preview of that I’ve seen, let me add, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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