LAS VEGAS – The closer shoppers are to buying a vehicle, the more they check out automotive Internet sites, according to data presented at a J.D. Power and Associates conference here.

Three-fourths of all car buyers use the Internet during the shopping cycle, and within a month of purchase, 90% of them are visiting websites of auto makers, dealers and third-parties, says Arianne Walker, a research director for J.D. Power’s U.S. automotive division.

Most of these online shoppers stick with the sites they started with, she says. “It is critical to get on those shoppers’ consideration lists early. Consideration sets are short and getting shorter. If you don’t make the Internet cut, the lists can get even shorter.”

Buyers do much research online, especially at third-party sites that list vehicle inventory. Inventory searches and build-your-own-vehicle configurators “are the biggest hits,” says Scott Kane, J.D. Power’s research manager-U.S. automotive division.

Internet users also often visit sites containing vehicle reviews and trade-in values, he says. “New-car buyers engage more with the top third-party sites throughout the shopping process.”

During the vehicle-selection process, “people pretty much know what they want,” Walker says.

Among segments, consumers cross-shop cross/utility vehicles the most; pickup trucks the least.

Expanding its research of online automotive shopping behavior, J.D. Power now monitors blogs and online message boards to gauge what consumers are saying.

“It is not what they say when asked, but what they say in the course of their ordinary life,” says Chance Parker, general manager of the firm’s Web Intelligence Research Div.

He is on the lookout for why Internet users indicate they do or don’t want to consider a particular vehicle.

“You have to be diligent,” Parker says. “If someone posts something on a message board, you know nothing about them. It could be a 9 year old or somebody that has never bought the product they are talking about.”

Much online chatting centers on trucks, but slightly less than last year, he says. Low on the discussion list: SUVs and diesel-powered vehicles.

“There’s more conversation this year than last about hybrid-electric vehicles,” Parker says. “People talk about hybrids’ fuel efficiencies, sales, batteries and engine performance. They don’t talk a lot about pricing.”

Parker won’t go so far as to say bloggers now represent the mainstream of auto buyers, “but, boy, they are getting close.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com