More auto sites turning to syndicated video content

The automotive purchase experience isn’t just about a list of features or squeezing out the best deal or even a convenient dealer location.  Buyers want to know how the vehicle truly looks and feels, as well as how it will make them feel.  There’s no substitute for test driving, but shoppers who aren’t ready to hit the dealer lot can rely on online video to address many of their research needs.

With video now an expected part of the online experience, no major automotive site can afford to NOT have it.  There’s certainly a lot of it available.  Every major automotive website gives its visitors the ability to video test drive the vehicles and perhaps take detailed video tours.  OEM sites, in particular, will sometimes produce video that highlights features, functionality, heritage, how-to instructions, etc.  Of course, OEMs have an inherent advantage in the video arms race, as they can repurpose video creative from other corporate sources.

One major player behind this trend is WheelsTV.  The site bills itself as “Automotive Internet Television” and offers a range of videos covering auto shows, motorsports, classics, test drives, etc.  It’s the latter category that has proven especially popular on other automotive sites, allowing WheelsTV to become a major syndicator of automotive videos.

Their most popular products are their Quick Vehicle Profiles and New Vehicle Test Drives.  These videos are incorporated into some of the most-visited third-party automotive sites, including:

  • AOL  Autos.  Profile and test drive videos.  Also offers DriverTV videos for many 2010 models and those prior to 2010 (when available), e.g. 2007 Toyota Camry.
  • Autotrader.  Profile and test drive videos.
  • MSN Autos. Test drive videos, including older models, e.g. 2008 Lexus SC 430 and 2009 Toyota Camry).  Shows ads before the videos, while the other portals do not.
  • NADA Guides.  Test drives videos delivered via Vehix.
  • Vehix.  Test drive and auto show videos.  Even though Vehix produces some of its own video content (175 total), WheelsTV dominates the video section (711 total).
  • Yahoo Autos: Profile and First Look Videos.  The latter is focused on new entries and redesigned vehicles.

The same content can also be found on general video sites such as YouTube and DailyMotion, which creates broader brand exposure and ancillary ad-based revenue.

Cars.com produces its own video reviews, featuring an individual reviewer doing the video walk around.  From a consumer point of view, the videos are less slick but clearly differentiated as coming from cars.com – it’s not the same thing you see everywhere else.  Cars supplements this content with [much longer] video reviews from MotorWeek.

I was also surprised to find an OEM among the WheelsTV licensees.  Kia utilizes the profile and test drive videos for multiple models, including the Borrego, Forte, Forte Koup, Rondo, Soul, and Sorento.  In the plus column, the independently-produced content is a unbiased assessment of Kia’s vehicles, which should evoke greater consumer trust.   On the downside, the videos contain zero branding, which is a critical function of the OEM brand site.  Additionally, by abdicating the responsibility of producing the content Kia leaves itself vulnerable to having none at all, as shown below with the Sedona.

Consumer research needs varies so greatly that it has become impractical for any single site to produce the full range of content.  Third party sites have to pick and choose what they create themselves and what they license from others.  It’s clear that video has fallen into the latter category.

Third-party site relationships are still really really complicated

Every so often I try to map the complex web of relationships (excluding lead generation and ad networks) among third-party automotive sites.  I especially like being able to visually represent the interdependencies – for instance, we can see that the most highly visited automotive sites (e.g. Autotrader, cars, Edmunds, kbb, and portals) depend on multiple suppliers in order to fully meet their visitors’ needs.

It also shows that some information providers have become de facto standards for the industry.  For instance, kbb powers the used-vehicle pricing for multiple sites while Vincentric is a major source for cost of ownership data.  Some suppliers have become so ubiquitous that removed them from the chart altogether in order to improve its readability.

  • eVox licenses photos and 360 models to Autotrader, Edmunds, jdpower.com, kbb, MSN Autos, NADA Guides, and Vehix.
  • NewCarTestDrive supplies vehicle reviews to AOL Autos, AutoTrader, kbb, MSN Autos, NADA Guides, and Vehix.

How to read the chart
The chart is presented in a flowchart format, in which the basic unit is:

This indicates that AutoTrader has a relationship with Edmunds – specifically, Autotrader powers the used inventory functionality for Edmunds.

iPhone app smackdown! (cars vs kbb)

It took a while, but we finally have more than one robust automotive shopping application for the iPhone.  Cars.com was the first entrant and kbb.com has more recently taken the plunge.  In keeping with its heritage, cars focuses on inventory while kbb is about vehicle research and pricing.  Despite these completely different goals, I thought it would be interesting to compare them head-to-head in an IPHONE APP SMACKDOWN!

Inventory

It’s the primary focus of the application and cars does a great job.  I like the ability to sort vehicles based distance, price, year, or mileage and also to save searches.

Vehicle Research

I’m impressed by how much great content kbb has packed into such a small space.  The gallery has tons of photos and yet remains easy to navigate.  There’s also an entire page devoted to money-saving payment options and warnings for extra fees (e.g. gas guzzler tax page shown below).  This is great lower-funnel information that should be of interest to mobile users.

Navigation

I love the way kbb has integrated the iPhone’s screen swiping into its navigation framework.  It’s a natural way for iPhone users to interact with their devices.  Cars relies on scrolling and menus for navigation.  It’s not bad, but it’s also not nearly as intuitive.

Startup

Cars remembers where you left off if you leave app whereas kbb makes you start over.  So if you’re on the kbb application and you take an incoming phone call (which is not a rare thing), you’ll have to restart when your call is completed.

Locate a dealer

While I prefer kbb’s presentation of dealer results (one page vs. two pages = less clicking = good), cars handles the driving directions more smoothly.  Both kick over to the iPhone’s built-in map app, but kbb makes you start over when you go back.

Other content

Kbb has video and a Twitter feed.  Cars has payment calculators and links to content on its mobile site.    Neither stands out as particularly amazing content.

And the winner is . . .

I’m going to take the easy way out and call it a tie.  The applications contain such different functionality that they’re not truly comparable.  As they beef up, however, I suspect that kbb’s start page design (it’s clearly built to add more links without creating clutter) and more intuitive navigation will be advantages against cars and future entrants.

How to hide your mobile site

With my recent mobile fixation, I’ve quickly realized that some automotive mobile sites are nearly impossible to find.  It’s hard enough to remember URLs such as http://suzukiauto.com, but good luck with http://mobile.volvocars.com/us/mobile/Pages/default.aspx or http://mobile.usablenet.com/mt/www.vehix.com.

Most people use search to find sites, but since the iPhone’s built-in Google search returns the main sites, finding the mobile site requires a redirect from the full URL.  In most cases, this works nearly seamlessly: when I go to http://www.chevrolet.com I get sent to http://m.chevrolet.com automatically.  Getting to the few sites (Acura, Jeep, Suzuki, Vehix, Volvo) that don’t redirect requires a substantial effort that few, if any, people would undertake (well, unless it’s their job.  Lucky me).  At least I’ve seen mobile ads for some, but that’s far from sufficient to drive traffic.

Cars.com has a unique approach on the iPhone.  It presents the main page with additional links to the mobile site and its iPhone application, which allows users to choose the experience they want.

Edmunds offers iPhone visitors an upfront choice.  It’s a nice method, but Fandango’s is slicker and simply looks better.

This doesn’t mean you should always redirect.  Many smartphone users may want to view the full site and should be given that choice, even if it’s a suboptimal experience.  Consequently, many mobile sites also offer links back to the main site.  In a few cases, however, the experience is so poor (especially because of Flash-reliant navigation) that they would be better off NOT giving that option.  Kia’s main site doesn’t even load on my iPhone while the Infiniti and Nissan sites basically tell you it’s not worth the effort.  But they’re the ones that linked me there!

My testing was limited to my iPhone and it may be easier to find mobile sites on other devices.  Still, it’s clear that our industry is still trying to figure out how to manage that interplay between multiple sites and multiple ways of accessing them.

So many automotive mobile sites …

We’re in the midst of fielding a pilot study on the usability of automotive mobile websites, which means that I’m spending a whole lot of time surfing on my iPhone. One thing that stands out is the sheer number of these sites: 24 from OEMs and eight from third-party sites.

In the coming weeks, I’ll provide in-depth analysis on the suddenly-rich arena of mobile automotive Internet. In the meantime here’s a complete list of the 32 sites along with screenshots of their homepages.

Manufacturer Web Sites

Acura

BMW

Buick

Cadillac

Chevrolet

Ford

GMC

Honda

Hyundai

Infiniti

Jeep

Kia

Land Rover

Lexus

Lincoln

Mazda

Mercury

Nissan

Porsche

Scion

Suzuki

Toyota

Volkswagen

Volvo

Third-Party Automotive Web Sites

AutoNation

AutoTrader

Car and Driver

Cars.com

CarsDirect

Edmunds

kbb

Vehix

An update on SEO for third-party automotive sites

Earlier this week I looked at the relative SEO performance of OEM sites and this time I’m setting my sights on the third-party automotives.  I used the same keywords as my 2009 SEO test, which allows me to make direct comparisons with how frequently third-party automotive sites appear in the default first page for both Google (10 search results) and Bing (10 to 20 search results, depending on the type of term).

The best performers across both search engines were Edmunds, Yahoo! Autos, and Automotive.com (a lead aggregation site).  The first two have tremendous relevant content and lots of linked content, both of which are critical.  But these leaders have clearly made SEO a priority.

The worst performers were Autotrader, kbb, MSN Autos, and NADA Guides.  All four also feature great content and are among the most highly visited automotive websites, neither of which is apparent in their SEO performance.  MSN Autos is almost invisible even on Microsoft’s own search engine, which points to the fairness of Bing’s search process even while it highlights the relative SEO weakness of MSN Autos.

Claiming a premium spot in search results is a zero-sum game – in order for one site to go up, another must go down.  Compared with the 2009 results, this test saw Automotive, Edmunds, and MotorTrend appear less frequently while cars.com, usedcars.com, and Yahoo! Autos claimed more top spots.

One notable riser was U.S. News Ranking and Reviews, which consolidates model reviews and ratings from a variety of major online sources.  It appears to be a relatively new entrant (at least, I haven’t noticed it before) and may be better engineered from the ground up to support SEO.

The full results are shown below.

Cars.com iPhone app vs. mobile site

Cars.com was one of the earliest automotive entrants to the mobile web and is again leading the way by offering a robust automotive iPhone application.  Both mobile options draw from the same central data as the primary cars.com site and allow the company to reach consumers via different mediums.  The mobile site has the greatest reach, since it works on any Internet-enabled mobile phone/device, while the iPhone app offers a richer user experience.

The application has more usable interfaces and readable text, and it also takes advantages of the iPhone’s built-in tool, e.g. map.  This difference in robustness is apparent immediately from their respective starting pages.  The app fits all the vehicle selection criteria onto one page, whereas the mobile site requires two pages and a little more effort.

The greater flexibility of the application is apparent in the inventory detail section – it’s basically the difference between Word and simple text documents.

For payment calculators, the app feels like a fully functional site whereas the mobile site feels like desktop Web 1.0.

My final example is the dealer locator.  The app takes advantage of the built-in functionality of the iPhone, which is a great for users.

And there’s plenty of other functionality on the application that the mobile site can’t touch: sort listings based on multiple criteria, save dealerships, listings, and searches, etc.

Sure, it’s a little more effort to install the application, but almost any serious vehicle shopper with an iPhone would rather prefer it to the mobile Web site.  It’s faster and easier to use.  The mobile site adequately addresses a much broader audience while the app is great for power users.  Either way, cars.com is giving mobile users little reason to look elsewhere.

Big Changes in Automotive Site Traffic

I’ve been spending time on compete.com and noticed some interesting patterns for automotive Web site traffic.

The most-visited sites continue to be the top third-party players, led by Autotrader, eBay, kbb, and Edmunds.  Most sites experienced a spike in traffic during August 2009, driven by the Cash for Clunkers program, but overall traffic is down versus the prior year at most sites.  Interestingly, by March 2010 eBay Motors managed to surpass Autotrader in terms of total traffic.

The situation for portals is similar.  AOL Autos made a nice push in late 2009 and has clearly lost momentum since then.  Meanwhile, Yahoo Autos was doing well until experiencing a major drop in February 2010, which parallels a similar plunge for its parent site www.yahoo.com.

OEMs have fared better.  After a brutal late 2008 and early 2009, consumers are again shopping both online and at dealerships and site traffic for most OEMs is up vs. the prior year.  Cash for Clunkers provided a boost across the board but traffic has receded considerably since August 2009.


I can’t completely explain why traffic to third-party vs. OEM sites has moved in different directions.  Incentives have played a big role in boosting sales (e.g. Toyota in February 2010) and would provide a strong lure for those brand sites.  Another possibility is the emergence of third-party alternatives, e.g. craigslist, OEM sites, and dealer sites, to find inventory online.  Finally, changes in online advertising spending may have impacted where consumers go online.

Traffic is obviously only a small part of the story – the data doesn’t tell us what consumers did on these sites, whether they were really shopping, and to what extent visits were turned into sales.  But it still provides insight into the continually evolving behavior of the automotive consumer.

How Conversational are You?

My recent scan revealed that many OEMs use social media channels as publishing mechanisms.  Doing so gets the content out there, but it doesn’t allow these massive companies to actually connect with their consumers.  I thought it would be interesting to look at one specific channel (in this case, Twitter) to see the spectrum of behavior from automated news feed to highly conversational.

It turns out that many OEMs are quite chatty.  The chart below shows some relevant data (including % of tweets that are replies) for a variety of OEM Tweeters, grouped by corporate entity.  In some cases, e.g. @Ford and @ThisIsGMC,  more than half of tweeting activity is replying, which indicates a high level of interaction.  @Ford is especially active, with over ten tweets per day.

On the other end of the spectrum are Tweeters who largely push content.  Some are not surprising given the account name, e.g. @AudiUSANews, @KMA_PR, and @NissanNews@GMNewsUS even describes itself as “an automated news feed for GM.”  Other infrequent repliers include @FordRacing, @Honda, and @Scion.

Third-party sites are also active on Twitter.  @KickingTires, from cars.com, had the highest reply rate (34%) of all the third-party feeds that I checked.  Most are far lower.  Qualitatively, third-party Tweeting transcripts read like conversations with friends, often about industry news, vehicles, etc.

Many well known non-automotive companies also show high levels of conversation.  @WholeFoods, @Starbucks, and @JetBlue, among others, have massive followings with which they are extremely engaged.  Overall, the range of behavior varies tremendously.

Replies are an indicator of not only how often followers ask questions, but whether the Tweeter invites discourse.  Interactivity isn’t always the goal, as it requires some level of dedication and follow through.

Finding Resale Values Online

Vehicle shoppers have access to a wealth of cost-related information online. For the most critical data, multiple sites offer their own variations (e.g. Edmunds TMV vs. Kbb New Car Value vs. Cars.com Smart Target Price) in an effort to lure and keep these consumers on their sites. Other useful information such as cost of ownership or depreciation is less common.

The chart below shows the available financial data from kbb.com for several premium crossovers. From this perspective, the 2010 Lexus RX offers a compelling proposition – it costs less than three of its competitors and retains the highest resale value after five years.
blog post photo

Currently, this kind of resale data can only be found on kbb.com. But in playing around with the data for this article, I found an apparent flaw in the computation. Specifically, many models have a first year resale value higher than that of the current market value. It seems that the formulas for calculating market value and resale values are not coordinated – it’s likely that both are derived independently starting from MSRP. If MSRP equals the market value, then there’s not much of an issue – but who actually pays MSRP for their new vehicle?

This creates the unlikely result that many vehicles are projected to be worth as much or more in a year than their purchase price today. Some examples are shown below:
blog post photo

The issue is particularly problematic among 2009 models, since their market values have been adjusted to better reflect reality while their resale values haven’t. But even 2010 models have high first year resale values. In fact, the lowest first year % among the models I looked at was 88% for the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer, with a one-year resale value of $15,690 against a current market value of $17,735.

This is admittedly a bit nit-picky, as not many buyers plan to sell their vehicles after only one year. But it does expose a potential underlying problem – buyers may be using multiple data points to guide their vehicle purchase decision, but projected resale values may be inflated if they don’t sufficiently consider current market pricing realities.