For this month's Marketing Shoot-out, we asked 75 WebScore panelists to put themselves in the shoes of a corporate fleet manager. We told them to imagine they were looking to purchase a new or used full-size van. We then asked them to visit and compare two auto purchase Web sites: Microsoft Corp.'s CarPoint and Auto-By-Tel Corp.'s online service.
Online car buying
For those unfamiliar with these sites, both operate in the same fashion. They offer new and used cars for sale through partnerships with dealers throughout the country. Buyers reserve the vehicle of their choice online and then visit the dealership to close the sale. These sites also provide a variety of information and research tools to help shoppers select the ideal make, model and year.
Although CarPoint and Auto-By-Tel are similar on the surface, our panelists' reactions to them were quite distinct. We asked which site people would use to buy a van if they could select only one of the two. By a 49-26 margin, respondents chose CarPoint.
An identical margin (49-26) felt CarPoint makes it easier than Auto-By-Tel to locate information on vehicles.
This seems to be the key factor behind CarPoint's victory as best site overall, particularly since a large number of those who preferred CarPoint voluntarily voiced their approval of the site's easy navigation and accessible information.
Six people appreciated the fact that CarPoint, unlike Auto-By-Tel, allows the user to search for a vehicle by class (such as pickup trucks or sports cars). They felt the site would be easier for someone with only a vague idea about what type of vehicle they want. "Auto-By-Tel would only be good if you know exactly what you wanted and you already knew a lot about cars," wrote one. "But CarPoint is much better for someone like me, who wouldn't even know where to begin."
CarPoint graphics preferred
Fifty-two of our 75 panelists, or nearly 70%, preferred CarPoint's colorful, graphically rich design to Auto-By-Tel's relatively spartan Web site. One person summed up the general feeling by saying, "Microsoft CarPoint was a very well-designed site. The colors, images and design of the layout were all very attractive."
In past Marketing Shoot-outs, attractive graphics have sometimes been a burden on a Web site, as they usually go hand-in-hand with extended loading time. CarPoint, however, keeps its graphics small. The consensus is that it actually loads more quickly than Auto-By-Tel, which features fewer but larger graphics. Eleven people volunteered an opinion that CarPoint loads significantly faster than Auto-By-Tel, while only three felt that the opposite is true.
In other voting, 50 panelists, or two-thirds of the total, felt CarPoint offers more information to help shoppers select a vehicle. CarPoint was also preferred as the site with the largest selection of new and used vehicles, by margins of 51-24 and 42-33, respectively.
The unusual thing about the results above is that the minority was very vocal in its insistence that the Auto-By-Tel site is the one that features more information and better selection. They pointed out that Auto-By-Tel provides links to six independent Web sites containing automobile pricing and information. Many also insisted that Auto-By-Tel offers a larger selection.
Auto-By-Tel a middleman
A few perceptive panelists identified the likely reason why CarPoint is preferred in the face of this evidence. With a difficult interface, plus information scattered around many pages, Auto-By-Tel makes it hard for users to discover all that it has to offer. One wrote that, "[Auto-By-Tel] seemed to be middleman for . . . separate sales sites. Each one was different, which was sometimes confusing. After trying to find what I wanted, I soon didn't care if [Auto-By-Tel] had better prices or selection."
Often, companies looking to upgrade their Web site debate adding more information, more features and more graphics. Auto-By-Tel may offer numerous resources, but CarPoint's easy interface makes it easier for people to find and use the resources it does have.
Matthew Weinshenker is an online services analyst for New York-based CLT Research Associates, which offers WebScore. He can be reached at email@example.com.