SAN ANTONIO – Online car shoppers used to click a lot, visiting various websites to find the vehicle they wanted.

But that’s changed. Car consumers today go to fewer websites, and instead rely more on search-engine marketing as an express lane on their car-buying journey.

“It’s different than it was five years ago,” says Peter Ord, national sales director for DealerSocket, a customer-relationship and information technology provider. “Today, search results take users directly to a make and model that’s available at a dealership. You don’t have to go anywhere else.”

It cuts to the chase. If online customers are interested in a particular model in a dealer’s inventory, technology takes them, not to, say, a dealership’s general home page, but to a landing site featuring that particular vehicle.

Having an attractive dealership website remains important, “but 90% of it is getting them there,” Ord says at a media roundtable during the seventh annual DealerSocket User Summit here. The session focuses on changing consumer behavior and technology.

Sure, some undecided consumers like to click around and check out different makes and models. But if a search result shows what someone is looking for in the first place, “that person needn’t go anywhere else (online),” says David Brotherton, a consultant for the National Independent Automobile Dealers Assn.

Forty-four percent of consumers visit 0-2 dealer websites today compared with up to five sites five years ago, according to a survey DealerSocket did in partnership with Google. The study surveyed more than 2,000 people who purchased a vehicle in the last 12 months.

More and more car shoppers rely on the Internet in general and their mobile devices in particular. But 81% say they don’t like the car-buying experience. Nearly 70% of dealers say their customers don’t like it.

Ord says one way to reduce that level of negativity is with mobile technology that readily offers customers more information about financing and payment options. That allows salespeople to better engage with customers and build trust in the showroom, he says. “Mobile technology promotes transparency” and eliminates a car deal in the works from going “back and forth to the point of frustrating customers.”

Customer satisfaction increases with 80% of customers when dealership salespeople use a computer tablet to show customers vehicle, pricing, financing and payment options, says Nathan Usher, DealerSocket’s business development director-sales.

“But only 20% of dealers use computer tablets,” he says. “Those that do, think of the tablet as part of the process.”

Some automakers, such as Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz, have launched programs that encourage their dealers to use tablets both to better engage with customers and cut the time it takes to buy a car.

“We’re working with a lot of manufacturers who are trying to get their dealers to adapt to mobile,” Usher says.

A third of surveyed consumers say they would like to do the entire car-buying process online. But 67% want to go to the dealership at some point for such things as a test drive and concluding the deal.

Yet, 66% of dealers perceive that people are itching to buy a car entirely online, Usher says. “The Teslas of the world say you can just do that. Yes, you need a great digital experience, but most people want a dealer experience, too.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com