Paid Search Versus Organic Search? Nah. 

There’s a false debate out there that asks whether it is better to focus on paid search or organic search. It’s false because, for one, virtually everyone who takes on the question comes up with the disappointing answer that both have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also false because the people debating organic search vs paid search tend to lump every industry together and pretend like they’re going to answer the question for everybody all at once. 

We’re going to do things a little differently. We’re going to agree with the consensus that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, but rather than spell those strengths and weaknesses out we’re going to focus on the logic behind both approaches, which will tell us how both SEO and PPC can drive traffic to your site. We’re going to ground our logic in what the research tells us about the car buyer’s journey, rather than pretend that the rules that apply to healthcare or horse racing apply equally to selling cars. 

Paid search and organic search have different best-use cases.

A traditional piece of advice is that organic search or search engine optimization is a long-term strategy and paid search or search marketing is a short-term strategy. This can certainly apply to car dealerships who just opened and haven’t built up their local SEO yet, car dealerships that are struggling to establish a local presence for whatever reason, and car dealerships that a running a specific campaign.  

This is sound practical advice; however, dealerships might want to think twice before they definitively say that paid search is for emergency use only. Here’s why… 

Paid and organic search hit different points in the car buyer’s journey.

Something we’ve talked about a lot in this series is the car buyer’s journey. Google did some research on the topic a few years ago and found that car shoppers encounter five basic “micro moments” – or moments where they consult a search engine or other online resource to answer a question. These moments are: 

  • Which-car-is-best moments. In these moments, the car buyer is trying to decide which car is “best” based on the customer’s criteria. A Google search for “best minivan” is an example of this kind of moment, as is “fastest sports car” or “cheapest sedan.”  

  • Is-it-right-for-me moments. These moments are like which-car-is-best moments, only they focus on more specific criteria related to individual makes and models. A Google search for “how many rows of seats does a Honda Pilot have” is an is-it-right-for-me moment. 

  • Can-I-afford-it moments. These moments zero in on questions around affordability and price. A Google search for “minivans less than 30,000 dollars” or “trade-in value for a 2013 Mazda CX-9” would both be can-I-afford-it-moments. 

  • Where-should-I-buy-it moments. With these moments, the customer has more or less left the research-focused phase and is ready to start visiting dealerships. Searches like “pre-owned dealerships near me that are open on Sunday” and “Lexus Seattle” are where-should-I-buy-it moments. 

  • Am-I-getting-a-good-price moments. These moments are focused on specific vehicle price, with many of them taking place at the dealership. Example searches might include “good lease deal for a 2020 Chrysler Pacifica” and “lowest fair price for an Aston-Martin.” 

A dealership website will be able to answer some of these questions better than others. 

  • For what-car-is-best moments, the dealer site might not emerge as the most objective source of information. For instance, a dealer website can point out that a certain car is the most fuel-efficient model on the lot; but it would rarely tell the customer that an even more fuel-efficient car is being sold at a rival dealership. Nobody would visit a dealer website expecting to find Consumer Reports-style third-party reporting. Dealerships websites can, however, position their inventory as best in other ways – such as appealing to brand prestige, featuring attractive videos, highlighting awards received, and so on. 

  • For is-it-right-for-me moments, dealer websites can be very useful. They can help the car buyer answer general questions about makes and models of vehicle, as well as answer questions about specific inventory. For instance, a customer might be in the market for a pre-owned SUV with relatively low mileage. The dealer website would be where she looks. 

  • For can-I-afford-it-moments, the dealer website will be useful as well. The dealership, after all, is the entity that sets the price. Many customers, however, will view other online sources related to affordability. 

  •  For where-should-I-buy-it moments, the dealer website is of paramount importance. If a customer sees the car he wants on the website, or the website suggests that he can expect an easy purchase process; this can be very decisive. These micro-moments also include activities like reading customer reviews, which could either support or challenge the brand image that the dealer website is trying to present. 

  • Am-I-getting-a-deal moments are based on comparisons, which means the customer will, almost by definition, be looking somewhere else than the website of the dealership that is trying to sell her a car. 

Organic search will favor searches where your dealer website is “the best resource” from the search engine’s perspective. If you google “Toyota Chicago,” odds are that the search results page will give you a list of Chicago dealerships. This is because the algorithm assumes that most search engine users are looking for a place to buy a Toyota, rather than read general content about Toyotas in Chicago.  

If you google “Toyota reviews Chicago” you’ll see fewer dealer websites and more third-party reviews. In this case, the search algorithm is betting that the user will find a Facebook or Yelp review of a Chicago dealership more helpful than the dealer website itself. 

As we will see below, you can expand your organic reach via strategies like content creation. Still there is ample reason to think that organic search will have a stronger hand to play in some automotive searches than others. 

Paid search gives you the power to “jump the line” and show up in those searches where organic has a weaker hand.  There’s nothing to stop a dealership from bidding on the keywords “Toyota review Chicago” and running an ad that goes something like “Read our reviews, we’re the most customer-centric dealership in town.”  

Paid search has the potential to move customers from one micro-moment to another. Let’s say customer is trying to figure out in the abstract sense if she can afford an electric car. Based on the specific search terms she’s using, she keeps getting results that essentially tell her, “Electric cars are expensive.” However, an enterprising pre-owned car dealership in her market has invested in an AI-powered search marketing campaign. She searches one of the keyword phrases the AI software has learned to bid on, and she gets a search ad that suggests that a pre-owned electric car is, contrary to the naysayers, within her reach. She clicks on the ad, and has possibly shifted from a dull series of can-I-afford-it micro-moment to a very strong and singular where-should-I-buy-it micro-moment. 

While you can choose PPC keywords on your own, the smart way to jump the line is to invest in a SEM tool that uses machine learning. More on that here

A simple case study. 

The author of this piece, who works out of a home office in Fort Worth, Texas, just googled “Toyota snow.” The organic search results were as follows: 

  • Top result – “5 Best Toyotas for Driving in the Snow,” web content by a Toyota dealership in the Saint Louis area. 

  • Second result – “Make Driving In Snow Easier By Using This Magic Button Your Car May Have,” web content by an online dealer in Massachusetts.  

  • Third result – “Best in Snow Toyota,” web content by a Toyota dealership in the Chicago area. 

  • Fourth result – “Snow-Friendly Vehicles,” web content by a Toyota dealership in Massachusetts. 

  • Fifth result – “Hell Yeah You Can Rally a Stock Toyota Corolla,” racing site content where a guy takes a Corolla for a spin on a snowy track. 

Based on this search, local car dealerships who invest in content are dominating a conversation that should be relevant to their local markets – how Toyotas manage the snow. They’re getting great organic SEO out of this topic selection, but they won’t necessarily win any business from this particular searcher, who lives more than six-hundred miles southwest of Saint Louis. 

The dealership who might win business, on the other hand, is the Toyota dealership in nearby Burleson, Texas. While there are several dealerships running paid search campaigns in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, this is the only one that showed an ad for this particular search. If the author was planning to move up north to a place like Saint Louis or Massachusetts and wanted to know which Toyota does the best job handling the winter roads (or, like many North Texans, is simply nervous about the vanishingly small number of snow days that occur locally) this dealership just put itself front and center. 

It’s also likely that someone searching for “Toyota snow” is in a what-car-is-best or is-it-right-for-me-micro-moment. Both the organic content and the paid search ad inserted itself into the research side of car buying, maybe even taking the place of a third-party resource. Also, the PPC ad created a pathway from a hypothetic interest – “Toyota” and “snow” – to a real live business located just twenty minutes away from the search engine user’s house. 

There’s no way to know if this dealership is using AI to bid on this keyword, why it picked “Toyota snow” over “Toyota ice,” or if this is part of a specific PPC campaign. There is, however, a strong chance that “Toyota snow” is a profitable choice for the North Texas market. 

Now that that’s resolved… 

You should get started on improving your organic SEO results, and toss in a dealership SEM campaign while you’re at it. Kidding, but if you’d like help in either of these areas LOCALiQ AUTOMOTIVE is standing by to build out your complete dealership search strategy. 


Contact us to request a free Dealer Scorecard analysis for your dealership or Auto Group. 


Related Content: