Auto makers continue to struggle with maximizing the potential of their websites to drive consumers into showrooms, says a recent study conducted by ForSee Results, a research firm that measures online customer satisfaction.

According to the study, automotive websites are a major source of information and research for potential buyers, but most car companies are unable to gauge the effectiveness of their online presence.

“Not all auto makers know it, but there is a very clear and demonstrable way to prove the impact of a website on sales and dealer visits,” says Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForSee Results.

“These things matter, and the companies who are not maximizing the value of their online channel are really missing a crucial advantage given the worsening economy and extremely competetive landscape.”

The study analyzed data collected from six brand websites: Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Some 2,000 respondents, who had visited one of the websites, completed an online questionnaire, which was used to compile the study, Freed says.

ForSee Results rated the websites on a 100-point scale based on the methodology of the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures satisfaction based on customer surveys and financial data.

A score of 80 generally is considered the threshold for a superior customer-satisfaction score, while the aggregate score is 78.

Honda.com topped the Web-satisfaction rankings with a score of 80, while NissanUSA.com placed last at 76. Chrysler.com and FordVehicles.com both scored 79, while Chevrolet.com and Toyota.com garnered 77.

The study stresses the actual market strength of individual auto makers does not necessarily reflect their website performance.

For example, Toyota, which ranked in the middle of the pack in the Web-satisfaction ratings, is the world’s No.2 auto maker based on sales volume.

Nevertheless, Toyota could benefit from better leveraging its U.S. website in marketing initiatives, the study suggests.

The auto maker “could provide more value to the organization if the voice of the customer was integrated more into online marketing strategies,” the study says.

The Web-satisfaction ratings indicate five future behaviors demonstrated by satisfied customers, including: brand commitment; likelihood to purchase; likelihood to recommend; likelihood to return; and likelihood to visit a dealer.

Each of the future behaviors is assigned its own ranking on the 100-point scale, some of which are contradictory to the overall customer-satisfaction ranking.

Ford, for example, rates a 79 in Web satisfaction, but only earns a 76 in the “visit a dealer” sub-category, which measures how effective a website is at luring customers into dealer showrooms. The aggregate score in the sub-category is 78.

Freed says Ford’s contradictory ratings are “not a good situation.” People “are telling us they like the site, but yet the ability to purchase is really limited,” he tells Ward’s. “People are looking for a couple of things, including (the ability) to move into the next state of the purchase cycle.”

Freed says Ford’s website, while attractive, can’t be navigated easily and is cluttered with too much information on too few pages. Consumers surveyed by ForSee say they like to be led step-by-step through the purchasing process.

“By blurring those things together, (consumers) can’t focus on the attributes of the car,” he says, adding that Ford’s website appears to have been designed “by committee,” which added elements to the site without regard for the finished product.

In contrast, Honda topped the “visit a dealer” sub-category with an 82, followed by Toyota (79), Chrysler and Chevrolet (78) and Nissan (77).

“Honda has done a good job communicating the unique qualities of its brand online, while also maintaining a consistent brand image across channels, including dealerships, advertising, media coverage and other channels,” the study says.

As the competition in the automotive industry continues to increase, so does the importance of having a strong and viable online presence, says Mike Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy.

Having an online presence is not enough for auto makers these days, he says.

“It’s transitioned into having (a website) that is effective in getting folks into dealers,” Bernacchi says, noting that while online marketing is essential, product still is king in the automotive industry. “Give me a good product and a crummy marketing campaign any day.”

While not discounting the importance of quality products, Freed says marketing is today’s primary key to success for auto makers.

“Websites are fast becoming the most important marketing channel out there, and people in the auto industry know how important marketing is,” he says.

“The Web really has the ability to personalize and customize that marketing. Used properly, it can have a big impact. But it’s not as important as the vehicles themselves.”

bpope@wardsauto.com