Websites quickly are becoming a prominent tool in auto dealerships' marketing box — again.

When dealers first became active online, it was through simple websites.

In the late 1990s, the National Automobile Dealers Assn. spurred its members to establish an online presence as quickly as possible to blunt what was perceived as an attack on the franchise system by third-party companies with visions of bypassing dealers and selling cars online.

The importance of websites as lead drivers declined for a few years. Although leads from dealership websites close at a higher ratio, they are hard to maintain, and the traffic to them was nominal. It was much easier to buy leads rather than generate them.

But in the last year, search technology developed by Google and Yahoo makes it possible for websites to generate significantly more traffic, and dealers are starting to see that the their websites can be an important marketing tool.

Websites are becoming virtual dealerships, where much of the shopping and buying process can be done online. Other technology, much of it driven by companies such as DealerTrack Inc. and RouteOne, allows customers to do more online, specifically financing.

“The industry will get to a point quickly where most of the buying process can be done online,” says Gary Marcotte, senior marketing vice president for AutoNation Inc. “The technology will allow us to do things we originally never thought possible.”

In April, AutoNation is launching all-new websites, built by Automatic Data Processing Inc., that Marcotte says will allow the No. 1 dealership chain to provide a better experience for customers online.

“Customers will be able to do much more research, and the number of ways they'll be able to search inventory will change radically,” he says.

Sean Wolfington, the president of BZ Results, a newly acquired division of ADP, says, “You want to be able to take everything in the real world and do it in the virtual world. The website should promote all of the profit centers — including parts and accessories.”

Creating a better accessories-buying experience online may be next for dealership website vendors, according to Brad Hill, a vice president with Dealerskins, a dealership website vendor.

“Accessories are going to become more important because it's a way dealers can compensate for the declining margins on new vehicles,” says Sidney Haider, Internet manager for Galpin dealerships in southern California.

But marketing accessories online is difficult, he says. “Nobody has figured out how to do that yet.”

While experts caution dealers to make sure their website vendors understand the importance of closed deals and not necessarily the amount of traffic driven to the website, Wolfington says dealers still need to be concerned about how many visitors are coming to their sites.

“If you don't have traffic, you're not going to generate leads,” he says.

Dealers can drive traffic to their websites using search engine optimization, e-mail advertising and online ads. Placing the URL in offline advertising also can drive a lot of traffic to the website.

Another critical factor in turning traffic into leads is the content on the website. Inventory is key. Customers are online looking for vehicles.

“Your website should never say a vehicle is not in stock,” Wolfington says. “You can always find the vehicle the customer is looking for.”

The website vendor should be able to upload inventory consistently and automatically, experts say. Part of that is keeping special deals on the site fresh.

Nine of 10 websites do not have specials available when customers click on them, according to BZ studies.

Customers should be able to do research, access specials and see prices on every dealership website, Wolfington says.

Include phone numbers on every website page, Haider says. “It does drive phone calls.”

The near future?

New applications will soon offer video walk-around presentations of vehicles on the website.

Dealers will be able to host online car care clinics and car buying or financing clinics.

They will be able to have website visitors who register and provide contact information, which helps build databases for marketing initiatives.

Despite all the technology, Wolfington says dealers should “keep the main thing the main thing — and that is generating sales and service.”

Latest Developments in Dealership Websites

  • Search technology makes it possible for websites to generate significantly more traffic.
  • Websites are becoming virtual dealerships, where much of the shopping and buying process can be done online. Says Gary Marcotte of AutoNation: “The technology will allow us to do things we originally never thought possible.”
  • Creating a better accessories-buying experience online may be next.
  • Customers will be able to do much more research, and the number of ways they'll be able to search inventory will change radically.
  • New applications will soon offer video walk-around presentations of vehicles on the website.
  • Dealers will be able to host online car care clinics and car buying or financing clinics.
  • Dealers can drive traffic to their websites using search engine optimization, e-mail advertising and online ads.