No matter how profitable a website can be, using “conventional” revenue sources, like AutoTrader.com’s classified approach (augmented by banners and context-specific ads), new revenue possibilities appear after analyzing the site’s content and comparing it to what I—as a consumer—want from the site, and am willing to pay for.
I was pleased to be asked to review AutoTrader.com, as spring has arrived, and it’s time to step up to a new convertible. Also, being familiar with Cars.com, I was interested in seeing how AutoTrader compared.
In general, I found AutoTrader was easier and faster to use (and offered more selection) than Cars.com, although before making a major purchase, I’d probably want to check both to make sure I’ve checked all opportunities within my marketing area.
Where AutoTrader.com excels is in its “one stop” integration of buying and selling. You can easily see what’s available, what your options are and what your current car is worth. You can explore financing and insurance options and calculate payments.
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AutoTrader.com’s Mequoda Scorecard
1. Strategic Intent – A
The first thing that strikes a visitor is AutoTrader’s no-frills interface, plus the ability to immediately get down to work. You can research various purchase options (new, used, certified, etc.), see what’s available in your area, or learn how to sell your existing automobile. Within seconds of arriving at the site, I was searching for a two-year-old Volvo C70 convertible.
2. Content Webification – B
One of the best features about the editorial content of AutoTrader.com, i.e. “How to buy” information, was the way hypertext was used to make it possible to go right to subheads of interest. Instead of having to scroll through long articles to see what topics were covered, after a few brief paragraphs of introduction, articles were condensed and details were hidden behind subheads. To access the details, all you had to do was click the “View” link, and the articles would expand.
This really worked well; it saved scrolling and operated very quickly.
Under the topic, “What should I look for in a new car,” there were headings for: Know who is doing the certification, Inspect the inspection list, Find out about the warranty, and Ask about maintenance and repairs.
The only reason I didn’t rate this feature higher was that there did not appear to be a “print this article” which would print the complete article with all topics expanded and visible. A “printer-friendly version” would have been appreciated.
Content webification included the ability to compare not only three new cars, but to compare any three of the listed used automobiles. This made it easy to make a side-by-side comparison of color, price and vehicle mileage. The only frustration was that mileage to each dealer was lost, and you couldn’t save or print the comparison. Nor could you email the comparison to a friend.
One of the nice features of the site was a listing page feature showing the high, average, and low price for the make and model, so you can see where the car you’re honing in on fits relative to the others.
3. Relationship Building (Personalization) – D
I was disappointed by several aspects of the “My AutoTrader.com” feature. I assumed I could use it to keep track of the cars I was interested in, to remember my zip code (so I wouldn’t have to re-enter it for each search), and to save comparisons and listings.
Evidently not. After I registered, I was disappointed to find that it was primarily to allow me to bid on autos.
Given my perennial interest in certain models, I am surprised that there is no use of RSS to keep me informed about the availability of desired models. To me, if someone is once interested in a Toyota Tundra, a Volvo C70 convertible or a 1995 Mercedes-Benz 300CE, that person is probably going to be interested for a long time.
I am amazed that I didn’t see any “keep me informed” or “let me know” invitation from AutoTrader.com. This seems to be a jarring omission. I would gladly sign up for an RSS feed of 2004 Volvo C70s, for example, until I either lose interest or buy one.
The lack of a way of signing up is strange because of the website’s relationship to the print version of AutoTrader magazine, which is handed out throughout the area. It would seem to be an easy task for AutoTrader to search for all new ads in each issue, and triage new listings to various email addresses or RSS feeds.
4. Community Building – D
Although Autotrader.com provided me with more concrete data than many sites, it was not an “enthusiasts” site, nor was it a community building site. However, given the poor level of “owner reviews” I have often encountered at other sites, this may not be of major concern.
I didn’t see, even, the online equivalent of a “letters to the editor” or “satisfied buyers” or “satisfied sellers.” Worse, although AutoTrader sells advertising in the print version of its magazine, I didn’t encounter any testimonials from advertisers documenting the success of advertising with them.
5. Persistent Navigation – A
Navigation is fast and logical. No problems occurred. Most of the time, because of the clarity of the navigation, I was operating “intuitively,” rather than analytically trying to figure out what to do next.
6. User Task Depth – B
I was impressed by how easy it was to both learn and do. Changing search criteria resulted in the rapid display of new data. Most screens required little, if any, scrolling. Most of the time, needed forms or text were located close to the top of the screen. I quickly found out what was available, what my car was worth and what the reviewers had said about it.
One of the reasons for the site’s efficiency was that navigation links were often added where they would be most useful. For example, when searching for reviews of the Volvo C70, a link to “Search for a Volvo C70 in your area” conveniently showed up. Likewise, at the bottom of a page containing links to reviews, there was another option for you to search for reviews of a different car.
My major frustration was the continual need to re-enter my Zip Code before making a search. Since I rarely move from market to market, the Zip Code should remain the same by default. Likewise, the “Distance” (within 10, 25, 50, 75, miles, etc.) should also remain the same between searches once you’ve started, or once you’ve signed-in.
Even worse, the search form defaulted to “all,” regardless whether the previous search had been for a new, used, or Certified car. It was very annoying to have to constantly reset a radio button that should remain consistent—at least during a single visit.
7. Affordance – A
Most of the time, navigation within AutoTrader was intuitive and logical. No problems.
8. Labeling and Language – B
There is clear, simple labeling throughout. Terms explained. The only times I ran into trouble were on linked sites, often dealer or automotive media review sites. For example, on the Edmunds site, after reading a C70 review, I saw a link to “Compare Additional Luxury Vehicles.” Clicking this didn’t take me to a comparison of the C70 with other luxury convertibles, but a list of all multi-car reviews.
9. Readability – B
Screens and text were well laid out and easy to read. The extensive use of hypertext links within most articles made it easy to locate information buried deep inside. Reviews were reformatted for consistency and fast loading, with strongly contrasting subheads. Line length was restricted to little more than half the width of the page.
I was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the text in search listings. Text was large and easy to read. Formatting and photo placement was consistent. Listings were clearly separated from each other. Information was much easier to read onscreen and when printed than from Cars.com.
10. Organization (Marketing Quadrants) – A
Most of the time, what I wanted to do appeared “above the fold.” Scrolling was the exception rather than the rule on most pages.
11. Content Freshness – B
Listings appeared up-to-date. Surprisingly, there was no mention of how long cars had been listed. That would provide a useful indication of the attractiveness of each listing.
12. Load time – B
Very fast. It took only 17 seconds to load on a 56K. It was amazingly quick on a high-speed connection. They missed getting an A by two seconds.
13. Aesthetics – B
There are really no “aesthetics” to the site: it is a fast, responsive and data-filled site.
The site correctly puts the stress on consistency, easy reading, easy navigation, easy interface with ancillary functions and emphasis on advertising.
For better or for worse, whatever “branding” takes place is up to the advertisers who have purchased horizontal or vertical ads along the top of each page, or to the right of the search responses. One of the reasons for the site’s simplicity is the fact that the firm’s logo uses the same color blue as text links, reducing the number of colors on each page while ensuring that the logo, text and links emerge against a clean, white background.
14. Brand Preference – A
I was very pleased by this site’s speed, function and content. I will probably spend more time with AutoTrader.com than the site I have been previously using, Cars.com. My decision is based on a much broader range of results returned within a 75 mile radius, easier reading, faster access to information and a more pleasing visual interface, especially in terms of search results.
No site is perfect, and there are two ways the site could become far more effective.
First, remember my preferences! I really got tired of entering my zip code and “miles to dealer” over and over again, every time I made a new search. Please! I don’t move between 98199 and 03821 every day. Likewise, if I’m willing to drive 75 miles to visit a Toyota Tundra, I’ll probably also be willing to drive 75 miles to test drive a C70.
Second, provide me with more reviews! Most of the reviews provided were from Edmunds.com and Consumer Guide. I would like to—and would gladly pay for—access from AutoTrader to reviews from the major car enthusiast magazines, Car & Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Automobile and even USAToday and the Boston Globe.
It would really “cinch the deal” if—after registering my name and credit card with AutoTrader.com if I could access reviews of cars during the past 10 years from multiple sources. If the reviews were fast loading and as neatly formatted as the current Edmunds.com and Consumer Guide reviews are, I would willingly pay 50 to 75 cents for archived reviews—and would probably spend several dollars each visit.
Obviously, AutoTrader.com would want to split the revenues with the original publications, but this is all “found” money. In fact, if I were offered the right deal, I would gladly pay $25 a month for membership in a subscription that promised me “everything automobile!”
Right now, AutoTrader’s revenues are based on classified ads and banner advertising. Conversion to a subscription site would add a whole new level to the experience. I would willingly let some of my “homogenized” enthusiast publication subscriptions lapse, and spend the money with AutoTrader if I could get more of a perspective on buying and selling cars.
Come on, AutoTrader… Broaden your horizons and expand your perspective: there’s money waiting on the table for you!