Auto dealers can get burned buying overly general keyword terms for search-engine marketing, some auto retailers who learned the hard way say.
Paying per-click for specific search terms effectively can highlight a dealership's ranking in the results listings of search-engine Web pages.
But if chosen search terms are too broad, a dealership can end up paying for lots of clicks by Internet users who aren't in the market to buy a vehicle.
That warning flag is raised during discussions on measuring online ad effectiveness at Ward's Automotive Spring Training Conference presented by Autobytel in Tampa, FL.
Five years ago, the Shaw Automotive Group in Denver thought buying “Chevy” as a local search term would be a good way to draw customers to Shaw's Chevrolet store.
But it backfired, recalls Matt Strickroot, Shaw's former Internet director and now a vice president at Digitas, a firm specializing in digital marketing.
Shaw ended up paying for clicks by Internet users who were interested in Chevrolets, not necessarily in buying one at the time.
“We blew through $1,000 in three hours,” says Strickroot.
“It is hard to sell to someone not in the market,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of Bluekai, a data company.
Buying general search terms can result in hello-goodbye results, says Stephen Stauning e-commerce director at the Asbury Automotive Group, a dealership chain.
“One example is ‘Honda Accord,’” he says. “If someone types in that when they are just researching cars, and it takes them to your dealership site, they often leave right away.”
Asbury also avoids the controversial strategy of buying a competitor's name for a search term as a way to snare customers, Stauning says. “If people type in your name, and it takes them to a competitor, they say, ‘Oops, that's not what I want,’ and leave.
“Search-engine marketing was supposed to put third-party lead providers out of business, but a lot of dealers ended up taking it on the chin with search,” he says.
If a dealership indiscriminately buys a bunch of keyword terms, the store may end up with a lot of website visitors who are unqualified as buyers, Stauning says.
Only 23% of online traffic to Asbury dealerships comes from keyword searches, he says. “If you have a big brand, like our McDavid in Texas and Neely in Atlanta, you don't have to do a lot of search.”
Half of Asbury's stores use search-engine marketing to generate leads. Others rely on leads from auto maker, dealership and third-party websites.
“Search is not the silver bullet it was touted to be,” says Todd Swickard, president and CEO of Auto Dealer Traffic Inc. “People spend six minutes on the search process and four to six weeks on the car-buying process.”
It is fair to question whether paid search would have been more effective in the past, says Dean Evans, chief marketing officer for Dealer.com and a former dealership manager.
“Digital (marketing) is still a good value,” he says. “Even though it may have been hit in the past, doesn't mean it isn't where you should be.”
Evans says too many dealers are preoccupied with the attractiveness of their websites. Their real concern should be whether online efforts drive traffic that, in turn, is converted into dealership sales.
Meanwhile, some skeptics question the touted advanced qualities of search engines.
They deserve credit for predictive algorithms, says Tawakol. “But if you type in ‘SUV Seattle,’ what do you think you'll get? It's pretty obvious as a search result.”