New Research Shows How Search Drives Auto Buyers

A new 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.

The study, which tracked the click stream data of a subset of thousands of comScore users for three months, with follow-up interviews with 342 users, 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.

Over the three month period of the study, 45% 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 three include the OEM universe, consisting of manufacturers, top tier lead aggregators, who provide internet users with both quotes and information, and also allow customers to find a nearby dealership and submit a request for sales help (a lead for the dealership), and what Yahoo considers second-tier aggregators, smaller players who essentially act like small-scale affiliates to provide leads to local dealerships.

Schwartz said that there’s conflict among these three major 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 that the increasing presence of OEM players has reduced the inventory of search ads and SEO opportunities for them.

The study found, however, that most users were visiting the OEM and first tier sites more than the 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 found that only 6% engaged in actual shopping behavior. However, these users represented 36% 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% either bought a car or said they were planning on buying a car within a year.

What types of queries were used? 77% were related to specific model research. 56% were looking to find a dealer, but only 32% requested a quote on a specific model of car. But Schwartz thinks that evaluating results solely on a cost-per lead basis understates the effectiveness of search.

“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.

Schwartz 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, email, print and television advertising) on the same playing field.

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

The study also found that search can play an important role in influencing opinion, and even help to change minds. 40% of those responding said that search reinforced what they already thought, but 60% 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, OEM sites were singled out as preferred sources for exploring different car options and accessories and providing in-depth information about cars. 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.

Key takeaways from the study: 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.

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