When consumers start car shopping in the twenty-first century, they don’t turn on the radio or local cable television to do it. So I’m continually perplexed by dealers who focus more on their local cable TV and radio ads than their own website, defaulting to a co-op agency rather than where the actual buyers are, which is on search engines like Google. 

As it turns out, I’m not alone. 

There was a blog post on Dealer Refresh in April 2019 by an employee of a large digital automotive ad agency. This person provided a detailed account that confirmed what most strategists already know: the digital agencies that win OEM retail contracts apply minimally successful search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to have a serious impact on your store’s website traffic.

This employee shared statistics that are quite believable to me and other consultants given what we’ve witnessed. Each digital strategist at their agency had over 70 dealer websites in their portfolio, which means that each strategist has fewer than three hours per month to spend on each website. 

Search Is Local

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.”  The same is true with SEO. The syntax of each search is unique to your own geography. People look for plumbers and pizza delivery in the same way they look for cars: locally. In fact, Google was founded around the concept of “relevancy,” meaning multiple points of data in each website would be considered before a search result is returned.  

I recently consulted with several dealer groups in New Jersey. They were all using an OEM-approved agency SEO package. By reorganizing their meta tags and adding relevant geographic search phrases, I was able to increase their overall organic traffic by over 20 percent. In one store, organic traffic increased by 400 percent in 24 months!

So What’s the Problem?

Often the OEM insists on ground rules that can stunt organic growth. For instance, they give the agency zip codes and towns that define the dealer PMA, and agencies are not allowed to optimize outside that area. Say goodbye to any notion of competition.

I’ve witnessed multiple instances of agencies using Google Maps, drawing a circle around the dealer and optimizing to those towns, even using phrases such as “New York City VW Dealer.” This means that a dealer at the Jersey Shore is getting optimization for Staten Island shoppers. As the crow flies, it’s only about 20 miles, but few people from Staten Island shop for cars at the Jersey Shore. The drive between the two points is expensive and time-consuming. A lack of local knowledge hurts this dealer’s SEO success.

There are a limited number of characters in your website’s title, H1, snippets and other meta code lines.  Wasting them on shoppers that will likely never come to your store greatly reduces the search position in your area. When agents have only a half day per month to optimize a site, these are the results. New model years suffer a similar fate.

“But I Get to Use My Co-op Dollars”

Yes, that thousand dollars a month agency package certainly will make monthly billing easier. But I suggest it’s worth taking a few minutes to conduct multiple competitor searches in your area. You’ll usually find that stores returning the most desirable results are those that have a regional SEO agency using the type of aggressive tactics discouraged by the OEMs.

The REAL Problem

No matter what you think of your own website, it’s undeniable that Google is the “gateway” to your store.  In fact, Google’s market share held steady at just over 92 percent of all searches in 2019, according to Statcounter.com.

Of course, all dealers use paid Google advertising, or AdWords. AdWords relies on the concept of relevancy in a strict set of rules and you pay per click on a desired word or phrase. So having a mediocre SEO strategy will actually increase the cost of every ad you run on Google!

Here’s an example: If I’m a non-BMW dealer that carries pre-owned BMWs, I’m going to build Google ad campaigns around “BMW X5, X3, i8,” etc. Google will “crawl” my website pages and decide where on the page the ads will run, as well as how much I will pay per click. If I optimize my pages properly, I will actually pay less per click and appear higher in results than a bona-fide BMW franchise store that ignores or settles for a minimal SEO strategy.

Dealers can spend upwards of $10,000 a month on Google AdWords. Spending that much is not a problem if it’s being spent efficiently. You can tell your money is well spent if your organic results are greater than your paid results.

Some Ideas to Improve Your Local SEO

Following are some guidelines to keep in mind when you’re crafting your local SEO strategy. 

Use optimal/popular phrases for your brand in your area. Go to Google and enter your bestselling models. What phrases follow these models? For example, when I search locally for “VW Jetta” the word “lease” follows on Google Instant (these are the automatic results below the search line while you’re typing). Keep adding these words to your search phrase to see the string of most popular phrases for your brand. Remember to look for buying phrases such “price” or “lease”. After a while, you’ll get a general idea of the most popular buying phrases for your area.

Why do you have to do this? Your agency can’t see these results because part of Google’s relevancy is IP address location.

Title tags. Go to your own website and hold your cursor over the tab at the top of the page. You’ll see copy of about 40 to 60 words appear for your title tag. If you see copy such as “We offer the very best Ford deals in Ohio, call us at xxx-xxx-xxxx,” then your title tag is likely costing you searches. Update your title tag with the phrases you feel are the most bottom funnel searches.

Page source. Move your cursor to a blank spot on your home page and right click. Select “View page source”. You’ll see a page full of code. Find meta name, description, keywords and examine them. These should match the phrases you have discovered in your Google research. Repeat this exercise with a few of your new car model landing pages. If these title tags and keywords don’t reflect the actual vehicle, you’ll be charged more by Google AdWords for that click.

Conduct off-site searches. Your search results are determined by the IP address you’re using. Go to various places within your PMA and start searching like a buyer. Are you getting the right results?

Clean up your Google Maps/Places page. I’m often shocked at how many agencies overlook deficiencies within this incredibly important database. This is where your Google Reviews reside. If you don’t have control of this page, you’re unable to respond to reviews. Make sure your website, address and other info are correct. This page forms the basis of your SEO, so make sure to check it several times a week, especially to respond to reviews.

Don’t overpay for “used” and “pre-owned.” A very common agency tactic that really burns up your AdWords budget is the overuse of “used” phrases. As you compete with many players for these terms, regardless of where you operate, the clicks are as much as 100 percent higher than your other search terms. Ask your OEM-approved agency for a report that details a descending cost of search terms. You may be surprised by how much of your budget is being eaten up by “used Toyota Camry” or “pre-owned Ford F150.”  

If this is the case, lower or eliminate these phrases. If someone in your area is looking for a used Ford, they will typically check a dealer’s website. If you subscribe to Autotrader or Cars.com, your pre-owned vehicles will be captured in that search.

I love local automotive cable, TV and radio ads. Dealers get to show their personalities and promote a great buying experience. However, buyers aren’t starting there anymore. SEO is where the rubber really hits the road when prospects start vehicle shopping.

Bruno Lucarelli is president of MSS Auto, owners of the Vin-UP Service Lane Cash Offer Coupon Program. He is the former head of advertising sales for eBay Motors, and is a veteran of Autotrader, Edmunds and CBS-TV.