Many dealers know the importance of Search Engine Marketing (SEM). They also realize a reputable SEM vendor or savvy Internet marketing expert can help create and maintain successful campaigns.

Yet when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of their programs, most dealers give their SEM reports little more than a cursory glance. Many dealers think increased Web site traffic and lead generation indicate the program is working.

But what if the number of leads generated doesn't meet your goals? Or, perhaps the volume of leads submitted is low compared to traffic. Which keywords work and which don't? What is the return on investment? Which pages are the most effective? What colors get the greatest responses?

Questions like these can reveal valuable information about your Web site, SEM program and the preferences of online shoppers. The metrics in your dealership's SEM reports can be used to make strategic Web site changes, improve your search rankings, attract new customers and ultimately sell more vehicles.

“Many dealers rely on their SEM vendor to do all the analysis for them,” says Timothy Nobles, director-search marketing at Dealerskins, a provider of Web development services. “However, it's important for dealers to take ownership in their Internet property. When you're spending potentially thousands of dollars a month on a search program, you should really know more than how many visitors and leads you're getting every month.”

Dealers should be measuring the whole acquisition cycle, says Dean Evans, vice president of Web site vendor Dealer.com.

“Dealerships can measure cost-per-click, cost-per-sales or cost-per-lead — and anything else in between using search metrics,” Evans says.

Unlike traditional marketing, effective search marketing allows dealerships to track the return of every dollar spent.

“One of the unique things about search is it's the only form of advertising today that gives tangible results,” says Todd Swickard, president and CEO of Auto Dealer Traffic, an automotive SEM vendor.

“Savvy dealers can really take advantage of this and leverage their Web sites to attract not only more quantity, but better-quality visitors that result in higher closing rates,” he says.

In addition to the number of site visitors and leads, SEM metrics can be used to help dealers answer the following questions:

How do I know whether my SEM provider is doing a good job?

The importance of choosing a reputable, experienced vendor cannot be emphasized enough.

It's not unheard of for some SEM providers to deliver reports that either mask information or present it in a confusing way. “The less information they provide, the less accountable they are for the results,” says Nobles, who encourages dealers to ask questions if they don't understand something. If a vendor is unresponsive, it could be a bad sign.

“Many providers out there have a ‘set-it-and-forget it’ mentality, which — for search marketing — is not a good strategy,” he says. “A good provider will continually monitor, tweak and suggest new strategies to improve results.”

Using the right keywords is just one component of an effective program, notes Swickard. It's important that vendors have a good understanding of search-engine guidelines. They also need to be able to update and resubmit Web sites to ensure priority listings. “It's pretty simple,” says Swickard. “If a vendor insists they are delivering traffic to a site, and the reports show otherwise, the dealer can call their bluff.”

What is my cost-per-lead?

On the surface, this formula is simple: dollars spent per month divided by number of leads received. However, not all search leads come through the Web site.

“Our estimate is that 46% of visitors to a web site result in some form of contact, but that contact may not always be an online form,” says Swickard. “Once a visitor finds a Web site, they may submit a lead online, or they may decide to call or visit in person. Unfortunately there's no way to track these results but dealers should be able to get a sense of increased activity. One recommendation is to always ask where a consumer found them.”

What if your Web site has high volume but few click-throughs?

If your site has a high volume of traffic and a low click-through rate or a high bounce rate, it's a good bet that something is wrong with it. Are the pages cluttered? Is the content or inventory outdated? Would adding Internet specials increase click-through rates?

“Alternately, it could be the SEM provider isn't driving the right audience to the Web site,” says Swickard. “Using the correct keywords is a large part of this equation. And, what works for some dealers may not work for others. Different markets require unique strategies that evolve over time and through repeated efforts.”

Dealers should be patient when first implementing a search program, Swickard says. “It may take months to find what works for that particular dealer in a particular location.”

Nobles cites an example of a dealer's Web site that wasn't generating many leads. “We changed the program and keywords used, and created customized landing pages with specific make/model information. For this multi-franchise dealership, the new strategy resulted in more leads.”

To increase convertible traffic, Evans suggests dealers make sure:

  • The Web site is built for powerful SEO performance. (Some are not, such as ones relying totally on flash, or those failing to include site mapping or deep inventory linking.)
  • Weekly SEO tasks are being completed, such as updating content and links.
  • You call the shots on paid search advertising and determine the demographics you want to target. Don't rely on the vendor to make those decisions for you.

Most popular search engine? (Hint: It's Not Google)

If you're thinking Google, think again. Though nationally Google is the most-used search engine, it may not be the best venue for a dealer to spend money.

“While Google does command anywhere from 45% to 80% of automotive traffic, this figure varies by region and leaves out a large portion of consumers who aren't using Google,” says Swickard.

“Other search engines such as MSN and Yahoo! have made great strides in forging partnerships with telecommunications giants such as AT&T. In some markets, every AT&T DSL modem installed will default the consumer to Roadrunner or Yahoo!”

“It's a global myth that Google rules the world,” says Noble. “In major metropolitan areas, this may be the case, but in Middle America, it really starts to change.

“More users have AOL, MSN and Yahoo! It's really important to pay attention to where your leads are coming from. Why spend money on your third-rated search engine? If the majority of leads are coming from another search engine, then dealers should leverage their dollars on that site.”

How effective are my other advertising campaigns?

Dealers are familiar with the concept of setting up several 800 phone numbers to gauge the effectiveness of various ad campaigns. Likewise, various URLs can be set up to gauge the effectiveness of television, radio and newspaper programs as well. The recent Kiamatch.com campaign is an example of an OEM setting up a unique URL that will track every lead that comes in from that campaign.

“One dealer we worked with was spending $285 a month for an ad with an online yellow pages company,” says Swickard. “When we created a new URL for the ad, we discovered the response was zero clicks for the entire year. Needless to say, the dealer did not waste any more money.”

Another strategy is to link consumers to individual departments on the Web site via a particular ad campaign. If the dealership is advertising a service special, an SEM program can be designed to drive traffic directly to the service department page, rather than the home page.

“The Web has changed all forms of advertising. We've moved past the generic model of impressions or how many people are viewing ads,” says Noble.

“Now we can pinpoint exactly who is receptive to a message and cater content to their likes and wants. If one strategy doesn't work, the dealer can abandon it and try another.”