April — the time of year a young man's fancy turns to baseball, spring, and maybe romance if he's lucky (or good) — and in my case, the Ward's e-Dealer 100. Actually, that is all I think about this time of year.

Then again, I'm not so young. I'm a bit grayer than I was five years ago when we began our e-100, the industry's first ranking of dealerships based on Internet-related sales. The gray, I suspect, is due in part to getting besieged each year by submission forms at the last minute.

As I put together the ranking, the one question I ask each year is, “Will anyone catch Dave Smith Motors?” After four consecutive years in the No.1 spot, it is a safe bet to say “Not in the near future.” And in Idaho, of all places! Don't they still ride horses up there?

We developed our e-100 ranking with the belief that the Internet would become an integral part of dealership operations. History has proven us right. I would love to take credit for that, but in all honesty, it is our readers who alerted us to the growing importance of the Web. (Give us credit for at least listening!)

The ranking highlights what's going on in the industry. It's always good to see the competition among the Internet directors — and there is plenty of it. But I'll let you in on a secret: competition among the vendors is even more intense. It seems they all want to lay claim to having the most e-dealers as their clients.

We realize, as with any ranking of this sort, it is not without some criticism. Each year, someone claims the ranking is not an absolute apples-to-apples comparison.

We have always defined an Internet sale as one in which the customer contact begins online and is managed by a dedicated Internet department — with the understanding that eventually the customer goes offline to complete the purchase.

Some dealers, not many, do not include the phone leads the Web generates (as when a shopper gets a phone number from a dealership or third-party website). Galpin Motors Inc. in North Hills, CA doesn't count such phone calls because owner Bert Boeckmann believes that the brand is so strong, people go to the website just to get the phone number.

The phone is an important tool and should not be discounted. The listings on used-car sites such as Cars.com and AutoTrader.com generate much more phone traffic than e-mails for dealerships. We consider, as most dealers do, those leads to be Internet-driven.

The Ward's e-Dealer 100 goes beyond just ranking dealerships. We use the ranking to find those dealers who are stretching the boundaries and creating clever and ingenious ways to use the Web to help them sell more cars and make more money. Some dealers are going to be further along in the process, while others develop strategies based on their culture and needs.

Basing the ranking only on sales initiated by e-mail leads or online purchase requests would fail to tell the entire story.

We are convinced the Internet should encompass all facets of the dealership. Today, a good Internet manager is at the nexus of everything that goes on in the store.

Things an Internet manager can do to aid the dealership include creating e-mail databases to help the service department and body shop generate more customers, helping create more traffic for the showroom and even developing the Internet-lead management system to be more of a customer relationship management program for the rest of the dealership.

O.K., it's easy for us to say what to do. We get to sit here in our ivory tower (actually, it's brown) and dispense advice. But it originates from those dealers who appear on the Ward's e-Dealer 100 year after year. We're just telling you what they tell us.