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I have been looking for a used car recently across a selection of manufacturer and third party sites, and it seems there is plenty of room for improvement in the way their search tools work.
Ideally, a search tool should be easy to use, but still allow users to choose between complex features and sort the results effectively.
So how do some of the major car manufacturers perform?
VW makes it nice and clear where visitors need to go from the homepage to search for a used car, a new one, or find other information:
The main problem here is that the search tool has been created using Flash, and the usability has suffered as a result. For starters, you have to wait while it loads up:
VW has provided plenty of options to choose the features you want on your used car. You can select from 16 different VW models, choose price range, mileage, fuel type, colour, age, and so on.
It also allows you to fine tune your search so that you can select the features that are essential to you; things like air conditioning, CD player, iPod connectivity, alloys etc.
The fine tune tool isn't too good though - you have to move the slider by moving the arrow rather than clicking in the segments, which would be easier. It also doesn't allow you to fine-tune enough.
The search tool isn't bad, but the main problem is that, because it has been designed in Flash, it is too easy to go to another link on the page or click the back button and lose all of your search results, forcing you to go back through the whole process again.
BMW doesn't use Flash for its search tool, but doesn't allow the same level of detail as VW does when choosing different options and features.
The search options are limited here; you can only search for one model and bodystyle at a time for instance and, though the advanced search tool offers more options, it isn't as flexible as it could be.
For instance, if the mileage on a car is important to you, it would be better to specify a search for cars up to a certain mileage. However, BMW only allows you to choose a mileage range. e.g. 20,001 to 30,000:
Unlike VW and BMW, it isn't that easy to find used cars from Ford's UK homepage. Plenty of people must come to the website looking to search for new or used cars, but the links are not clearly displayed.
The search tool is also basic, again allowing you to search for only one model and body style at a time, while the price range is unnecessarily restrictive:
The advanced search doesn't offer anything like the level of detail that the others provide. The only filtering options offered are colour, mileage, transmission and fuel type.
The product pages are also a let down, as they don't offer much information on the cars themselves. Only stock photos are offered, as well as a fairly basic level of technical detail:
One of the better car searches I found was on the Citroen website. It is simple enough to use easily, yet provides enough options for users to be able to narrow down searches, allowing them to search for options like air conditioning and CD players.
What is useful about this search is that, having got the results, the search parameters remain on screen so you can easily narrow your search if there are too many results to go through, or broaden it if there aren't enough.
The level of detail provided on the product pages is good, though they do open up in a new window, which isn't ideal:
Of the four I have looked at here, Citroen has created the most usable car search, though the VW tool provides a lot of useful detail despite the use of Flash.
A lot of the other manufacturers' websites were similar to the four I've looked at here. The Alfa Romeo used car search was particularly bad, built in Flash and requiring you to wait for it to load after selecting each option.
Many others suffer from a lack of detail in the product descriptions, while a lot failed to provide adequate photos of the cars on show, or none at all.