Although new-vehicle buyers visit automaker Web sites and third-party automotive Web sites at the same rate during the shopping process, buyers rely on each type of Web site for different types of information.

That's the key finding of the recently released 2009 Web Site Performance Tools Report-Wave 1, a collaborative effort between J.D. Power and Associates and Compete Inc.

During the six-month period preceding a new-vehicle purchase, more than three in four new-vehicle buyers use the Internet to shop around. Sixty-six percent of all buyers visit at least one automotive brand Web site during this time frame. Likewise, 66 percent of new-vehicle buyers visit a third-party automotive Web site during the same time period.

However, while overall usage rates are the same for these two different types of sites, the reasons that buyers visit them vary widely.

Third-party automotive Web sites

Among third-party Web sites, such as AutoTrader.com, Edmunds.com and kbb.com, buyers most frequently access such features and tools as inventory search capability, product reviews and trade-in information. Overall, 31 percent of buyers who visit Edmunds.com access the site's vehicle reviews, while 55 percent of buyers who visit kbb.com use the site's trade-in information pages. Among new-vehicle buyers visiting AutoTrader.com, 61 percent use the site's inventory search tool.

Automotive brand Web sites

In contrast, buyers who visit automotive brand Web sites while shopping most often use vehicle configuration features and seek out information about local dealerships and special offers. Among manufacturer Web sites, Ford, Honda and Toyota garner particularly high visitation rates from buyers.

The report also finds that among buyers who visit specific brand Web sites, sales close rates vary widely. For example, among vehicle buyers who visit the GMC Web site, 34 percent ultimately purchase a GMC vehicle. However, among buyers who visit the Saturn Web site, the close rate is just 4 percent.

"By understanding the different patterns of usage among actual new-vehicle buyers, both automotive brands and third-party automotive publishers may optimize their sites to provide the information used most often by the visitors they care most about-actual buyers," said Arianne Walker, director, marketing and media research at J.D. Power and Associates. "For manufacturers, improving sites may help maintain in-market shoppers throughout the shopping process. For third-party sites, improvements may help attract in-market new-vehicle buyers, thus increasing advertising opportunities on the sites."

Additional key findings

The report finds that, at six months prior to their vehicle purchase, one in four new-vehicle buyers visits a manufacturer Web site and one in four buyers visits a third-party site. However, this Web site visitation rate of buyers increases considerably during the month of purchase, with 34 percent of buyers visiting a manufacturer site and 33 percent visiting a third-party site.

"During the earliest stage of the shopping process, new-vehicle buyers tend to rely equally on third-party sites and manufacturer sites, although tool usage on those sites differs," said Skip Streets, executive director of sales, automotive at Compete Inc. "As buyers get closer to making their final purchase decision, particularly during the month of purchase, there is an increase in tool usage.

"For example, more users use vehicle configuration tools, particularly on automotive brand Web sites. To support buyers throughout the entire shopping process, both types of sites need to provide the various kinds of information new-vehicle buyers are looking for through easy-to-find, easy-to-use tools," Streets concluded.