The internet is now a major part of the automotive purchase process, with 66% of car buyers heading online to find out more about the vehicles they are considering, though 56% still buy from main dealers. 

So are car dealers and manufacturers making the most of their online presence to aid this research? If more than half move offline to buy from main dealers, is this a smooth transition? 

Here are a few ways automotive brands and dealers could improve their websites… 

A survey by Specific Media underlines the importance of the web in the automotive purchase process, with a third believing that the web gives them more control and makes them less dependent on dealers. 

48% believe that the internet presents them with a wider range of opinion, so they arrive at a dealership armed with more information. 

Though the internet plays a key part in the research phase, the vast majority of purchases take place offline. 56% head for a main dealer, and 20% other dealers and garages. 

Brands and dealers can play a big part in helping customers during the research phase, but can also make the transition from online to offline as smooth as possible to make the most on leads and interest generated online. 

Here are a few suggestions:

Let people research on the site

For most people, buying a car is a pretty big decision, so they are going to want to do plenty of research to find the right model at the right price. 

Unless you have a specific make or model in mind, then you’ll want to compare features of similar models e.g., you may want to compare a Ford Focus with a Golf, or the Audi A3. 

On most sites, it’s impossible to do anything other than compare specifications within the brand’s range, as with BMW: 

This is useful, but it means that people need to head elsewhere if they want to compare the specs against a competitor’s model. 

Honda takes a different approach, allowing users to conduct this kind of comparative research on its website: 

The data comes from an independent source (CAP), so if a competitor’s model is faster, cheaper, or more fuel efficient, this data will be shown. 

Use reviews

Car research online often involves checking out reviews on sites like Parker’s, Top Gear or AutoCar, as well as various user forums. 

When people are researching travel products online, TripAdvisor is a common destination for consumers, and firms like Thomson have reacted to this by incorporating hotel and resort reviews into their websites. 

This makes perfect sense, as it provides the information that people want to see, and takes away the need for them to leave the site. However, no brand or main dealer websites seem to be doing this. 

As well as helping consumers make a decsion, reviews also have SEO benefits. People often search for car reviews, so this presents an opportunity to pick up on more traffic, as well as producing regularly updated content for Google to index: 

Keep used car information up to date

I spent a month or two researching a car purchase earlier this year, often looking at the used car ranges online to see what was in stock at my local dealer. 

In some cases, websites were kept up to date with new stock, but others were way behind, meaning that I frequently acquired about a car I’d seen online only to find that it has been sold a week before and the listing hadn’t been removed. 

In my experience, Volvo was particularly bad for this, and the lack of up to date stock information rendered the used car search tool almost entirely useless. 

On the other hand, both BMW and Ford kept their used car stock information up to date online, meaning I could check regularly knowing it wasn’t a complete waste of time. 

Make the most of online leads

Another area that annoyed me when researching online was the speed of response to online queries. Again, Volvo was just too slow here.

Having enquired via the online form about a particular car, I had to wait days for a reply. In contrast, when I used the contact form on the BMW site one evening, I received a call the next morning. 

Dealers need to make the most of leads generated online. 

If users are spending time researching cars on the website, then give them plenty of options for contacting a dealer about a car, to book a test drive etc. 

Honda provides a good example here, with a pop up that appeared after I had spent some time on the site. Some may consider it intrusive but it does at least offer plenty of contact options, and using live chat is a great idea:

More usable websites / search tools

As I mentioned before on this blog, a lot of used car search tools are poorly designed and make the process harder than it needs to be. 

There are some good examples though, such as Honda’s car search tool. It looks good, it’s easy to use (though sliders could be better) and make it easy to edit and revise search parameters. 

Save car searches for later visits

The research process may take a while, so letting customers save a shortllst or search parameters makes it easier for them to pick up where they left off. 

Another good example here from Honda: 

I’d love to read your feedback on this topic. Which car brands or dealers have the most effective websites? What else could they improve?