Recent claims that today’s dealership websites are completely broken appear to be well-founded.

Whether we feel like agreeing or not, those claims are strongly supported by real-time metrics, based on average automotive dealer website traffic. Most stats show that visitors bail within a few short seconds – to the tune of 97-98% of your traffic.

Another way of saying the same thing is that only around 3% of all the traffic that dealers spend a bundle of money on, is converting. So, back to the original statement; dealership websites appear to be broken due to a major failure to engage and convert those consumers.

As a web manager and online marketer since 1994, a website that under-delivers to that degree is not good for ANY business in any industry. But what is a dealer to do? Adding injury to insult, most dealer sites also provide a very poor “user experience”. Even if the consumer does decide to stick around, their time spent on-site is in many cases miserably ineffective:


us·er ex·pe·ri·ence


1.   the overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use. [en.wickepedia]


The main complaint from consumers regarding dealer websites is that it is often difficult for them to quickly access information about the one item that interests them the most – a dealer’s inventory. But how can that be given that there are so many navigation elements that clearly (at least in our minds) lead them to the inventory?

The answer is fairly simple; there are usually too many(!) paths, which creates confusion in the minds of the consumer. In fact, recently (3 months ago) when I was looking for a vehicle myself, I found my search blocked while attempting to look at a dealer’s inventory – by a fairly lengthy form I needed to fill out first. That’s like trying to visit a dealership’s showroom, only to have a bouncer at the door tell me I had to first fill out a very long form before I would be allowed to walk through the door!

That’s insane. For normal people anyway, when seen in that context. Now, don’t get me wrong – squeeze pages serve a great purpose and can be totally acceptable IF the visitor is given a darn good reason why he is not allowed to see the inventory first [“Fill out this form and we’ll take $500 of your vehicle purchase!”].

Now back to making it ‘easy’ for visitors to get to inventory; I remember a few years back when I was managing around 14 OEM sanctioned dealer websites as the web and online marketing manager for a dealer group. One day I started getting calls from my GMs asking if I had noticed that one of our competitors had actually stepped ‘out of the box’ and had actually created a home page with nothing more than two fairly large images of (1) a new car and (2) a Pre-Owned vehicle on the page to choose from. Other than those great looking graphics, the home page was devoid of the ever-present fly-in banners, popups, and other distracting and confusing widgets. I found that so refreshing, simple and direct. The customer knew EXACTLY where to click!

The unexpected results of “simple”

In direct correlation, I also remember several years ago participating in a special website optimization conference in San Francisco, where a few top Google developers were in the room, including the developer in charge of the home page of Google. It was interesting hearing her tell the story of how their ‘deconstruction’ of the Google home page took place over several weeks, until they had cut it down to the simple form we currently know today – yes, it is still being used today, after all these years.

Now be honest – don’t you wish more online interactions were that simple? I know for a fact that car shoppers do – and why I am writing this article!

Once Google had reached the simplest design they could create, and rolled it out after initial beta testing, they then experienced interaction, engagement and search queries to a degree previously unheard of.

Is ‘Simple’ Really More Profitable?

Is there a lesson for us there, especially if one of the largest, most successful companies on the planet has already spent millions discovering and proving the value of simple? How much has Google earned from their ‘simple’ home page business model? Most marketers know that too many options will confuse the consumer to the point that they will avoid purchasing anything because of the confusion and “option overload” they are experiencing. If Google were complex, complicated or confusing, I would bet BING or Yahoo would be leading the search engine race!

Add to that the fact that there usually is little emphasis on optimizing for conversion throughout the rest of a dealer’s website (post home-page views/visits), which could include more gentle nudges pointing to the inventory pages – and you have a greatly underwhelming experience for the shopper and low ROI for the dealer.

Instead, common practice is for dealers to immediately present consumers with a myriad of paths to the inventory, to deals and other ‘important’ marketing messages through the use of widgets and other distracting elements, all usually screaming as loud as the other “pay attention to ME! Over HERE!”. In reality though, each of them are accomplishing the task of carrying the consumer further and further away from their original intent: that of finding out whether that dealer has the particular vehicle they were looking for.

The emphasis is, in the end, NOT on what the consumer cares about, which is usually the inventory and the differentiating factors that would cause them to want to buy the vehicle from that particular dealer.

The tragic result is that due to this disconnect, an empathy and relationship with the dealer are not being built between the consumer and the dealer in those first critical moments, because true, meaningful engagement is missing from the overall experience.

Time for a thought-provoking question:

Could it be possible that website design and the current patterns we have been following as dealers could be turned on its head and reversed? That is, how about getting people very quickly to the inventory, only presenting them with all of the other messaging, offers, widgets and add-ons, AFTER they have established a relationship with the product?

What could happen if dealers focused their entire website (or most of it) around their inventory? Could driving people directly to the inventory FIRST be helpful in lifting conversion rates? I would make the argument that yes, it would! What a concept – actually giving people what they want when they visit your business. Quickly, efficiently and as per the visitor’s initial request.

A clear example of a ‘simple’ shopping experience…

Think about it – How would you feel if you walked into a retail store where you could tell the store employee who greets you (if that even happened) what you were looking for and they in turn led you immediately to that area of the store where the item could be found? How refreshing would THAT be!?

Continuing with this example, just think about how many distracting obstacles you were able to avoid, including all of the distracting and irrelevant in-store signage, as they led you on the most direct path to what it was you came to see/purchase!

Even if they did not have exactly what you were looking for, I would bet you came away with a great feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ as you thanked them and walked out, very aware of the time saved because of the clarity and directness of their help.

Now, continuing with a negative retail store example, compare that experience with; no one greets you; you see lots of “stuff” as you enter the store, none of which interests you; and you get more and more fatigued as you battle your way to the back of the store, hoping against hope they just might have what you are looking for.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, that helpful store clerk? They probably even hung around to answer any questions you may have had about the product. What a concept!

Going back to the dealer’s website, NOW, after the consumer has been presented with your inventory/product, would be the time for all those pop ups, chat boxes offering help, and any other information DIRECTLY related to that specific product or brand tp be presented to them. That is, AFTER the consumer is presented with the product, then you can start presenting them with more options or information – it is then seen as relevant, viable and helpful. Unfortunately, today’s typical dealer website model dictates trying to present these elements BEFORE the consumer has even gotten to know you or the product on your site.

What Do Consumers Experience on YOUR website?

Now, in all honesty, how does your website measure up against those two experiences, when you look at it through the eyes of a consumer?

Before cries of ‘treason’ and ‘blasphemy’ arise from the old automotive guard, wanting to keep things the way they have always been because change is nearly impossible to facilitate, I should probably let it be known I am well aware of the cost of change. In fact have been personally building or been involved in the building and optimizing of websites and eCommerce platforms for many years, including enterprise website redesigns to the tune of $450K+, in the retail world, to running 14 to 20 dealer OEM and custom websites for several years that were intensely restrictive in what changes could be made to them.

I know intimately the frustrations and battles that dealers have had to wage on many fronts with the various web hosting firms, OEMs, the inventory feed companies with their requirements and restrictions, etc. But the changes I am suggesting here are what I would call almost superficial and whose technology integrations would be extremely easy and doable. The result? User experience and user interaction CAN be greatly enhanced and modified fairly easily on your site despite many restrictions.

A New Tech integration example

I thought it might be useful to take a look at one of the technologies that is currently helping today’s dealer elevate the consumer experience. It allows for more interaction and engagement on a dealer’s websites than previously experienced. Another upside of these cheaper, more effective technologies, is that they provide much higher conversion rates than the measly 3%-4% dealers have had to endure over the years.

One such technology I can quickly present allows for dynamic change out of the dealer’s website content blocks (text, video, banners/graphics, etc.) based on the visitors actual physical location – in other words their geo-specific location. This location is read by the technology the minute they hit the website; the devices IP triggers the call up and placement of a specific message or visual element on the web page.

Here’s how it works

A website visitor from a neighboring town, or outside of the dealer’s DMA, can now be greeted on the dealers’ home page with a special message for that visitor, specifically based on their Geolocation (for mobile devices, geolocation is provided via cell tower pings). The technology that is embedded on the dealer’s website, reading the geolocation/position of the device can then use a data lookup table and with extreme accuracy “greet” that visitor with a personalized message or offer.

One offer might be for a Gas Card offer if the geolocation of that visitor is over 25 miles away. Pretty enticing and intuitive, is in not!?

The delivery of such personalized and highly relevant content creates the effect of building a much higher bond of trust and level of interest from the consumer and statistics are showing much higher conversions due to this personalization factor.

One big plus that this Dynamic Content change-out technology provides is that one can use the same on-page real estate. It removes the need for time consuming page changes or redirects, click-fatigue and unnecessary page loads. Think of it as a single area on the page that can be coded to swap out images, text content, video, or any other ‘element’ that is extremely relevant to that visitor’s location or product interest, based on their location.

Now, by using a little imagination (and completely within the realms of today’s technology), it is easy to see how this technology could help simplify the current over-taxed and over-designed websites that dealers are stuck with today. It would be one step closer to the “simpler” dealer website model and user experience I presented earlier.


I would encourage you to look up the term Dynamic Content as it relates to on-site content change-out capabilities. It is a force to be reckoned with in today’s marketing landscape, and you might as well become familiar with it!

If you would like more information or examples on how this technology can best be used on a dealer website, feel free to contact me via my Linkedin account. Again, this technology is already being used to great effect and I can share some examples with you of some dealerships who are seeing good initial results.

Author Info

Randy Cole is the VP of Marketing at DealerSuccess and has an automotive history of managing the websites and online marketing for a NW Auto Group with 14 dealership web sites scattered across 4 States for some years. He has been involved in online marketing and website optimization since 1994, as well being the global web/online manager for a billion dollar outerwear/sportswear company in the Pacific NW for nearly 10 years. He was also awarded in 2008 by Digital Dealer as the year’s most Creative Automotive Sales Professional, for his unorthodox insights into the deployment and usage of marketing tools and methodologies.

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