Do Car Dealerships Still Need SEO?


A decade ago, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) was a buzzword in the automotive industry; a concept which was hard to grasp and that few understood. Over the years, however, most businesses have modified their marketing strategy to include some form of organic SEO. As a result, website providers and advertising agencies developed and expanded their SEO offerings, knowing that one size doesn’t fit all.

Over the last half-decade especially, the search engines have unleashed, what seems like, an infinite amount of updates: changes to the algorithm, tweaks to the search results page layout, different colored text for ads and a variety of new calls-to-action. This begs the question: with so many changes, rapidly increasing mobile adoption, and Google giving us such refined results, is SEO still necessary?

The Evolution of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page)

To answer this question, we need to examine the evolution of the SERP and how it affects the organic listings. Below is a search for ‘Chrysler Lakewood’ made on Google in 2013:

Quite the contrast from the same search in 2016:

There are a number of differences in the way ads and local (now called Google My Business) listings display. The ads are no longer clearly separated within a beige box, and an additional local listing is now shown. The local listings are also more robust. Each includes a direct link to the website and a call-to-action to receive directions. With the map now moved out of the right-side column and placed below the ads, there is noticeably less real estate for the organic listings.

Let’s examine the changes of the Google SERP as it displays for mobile. Here are searches made on a mobile device over a shorter period of six months:

One of the tasks of an SEO provider should be to stay current with the updates search engines have been making, and then develop a strategy accordingly. The changes over just the last months have been remarkable. For example, paid ads now include a click-to-call option and have changed color from yellow to green. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that the ads now look more like organic listings.

Additional recent SERP changes include:

– Expanded Text Ads, which are taking up more real estate on the page.

– Ads that now include a variety of modifiers, including click-to­-call and a set of links that allow navigation to other areas of the site right from the ad – not unlike an organic listing.

– In a desktop search, the removal of the right-side ads entirely and additional ads that often push organic listings further down the SERP.

Google Has Always Focused on the User

Google, and other search engines, make updates based on extensive testing. They experiment with different iterations, prove a concept and then roll out the best performer. Yes, the ads now look more like organic listings – perhaps in an attempt to increase click-through rates on the paid side. They are, however, more user-friendly and provide shoppers with a clear path to conversion.

The Changing Search Landscape

Below is a snapshot of a dealer client’s organic site visits over the last 13 months (light blue) and PPC (paid search) visits for the same timeframe (dark blue). These two graphs reflect mobile usage only:

For this site, we’re seeing a decrease in organic search and a lift in pay-per-click traffic. Of course, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Trends like this involve diving into the data, and analyzing and being aware of what is happening in the industry. Here we are seeing the site’s organic search engine visibility improving while the advertising budget remains the same. The expansion of mobile ads, and the addition of more call-to-action options, is increasing the advertising traffic and decreasing the organic traffic.

To put it another way, recent changes see mobile shoppers finding what they’re looking for (directions, click-to-call, a set of links that allow them to access the most visited pages on the site, etc.) within the mobile ads. These paid ads are displayed prominently at the top of mobile page versions, while the organic listings have been pushed (ever so slightly) a little further down the page.

So, Do We Still Need SEO?

YES; you need SEO now more than ever!

With less organic real estate, it’s even more important to have experienced SEO professionals working for your dealership to maximize your business’s visibility across every search engine. They should be able to:

– Recognize key searches that are bringing traffic to your website from a search engine.

– Find ‘low hanging fruit’: less competitive phrases that searchers frequently click on to access the site.

– Adapt their strategy quickly, because they need to stay at the forefront of the search industry.

Ideally, they would be a part of a larger SEO team that actively collects data, tests strategies, and reports results. A bigger team means more eyeballs on the search engine landscape and more minds to share ideas. A successful SEO and PPC strategy, for example, provided the aforementioned site with more total search engine traffic over the previous year. This didn’t occur as a result of Google’s mobile SERP changes alone.

An SEO Strategy Should Be Focused on Local and Mobile SEO

“Where are the closest restaurants to me?” “Find me the nearest Honda service center.” Searches including phrases like ‘nearby’ or ‘near me’ have surged; usage has multiplied over 30 times during the last four years. Searchers now talk to search engines like they’re asking for a recommendation from a close friend. Local (Google My Business) results often provide a large percentage of organic traffic to a site. With a good SEO strategy, the placement of a local listing can improve, just like an organic listing.

The Advantage of Having SEO, SEM, and Website Services with the Same Provider

Housing all facilitators of your search strategy under one roof allows each piece of it to communicate with the other. There are numerous benefits to a combined SEO and SEM strategy. An SEM analyst can test and report a high-converting piece of ad copy, which, in turn, can be incorporated into an organic listing. Conversely, SEO can aid the SEM analyst’s efforts by increasing the relevancy of the ad through targeted on-site content. If you use the same digital provider for your dealership website, your SEM and SEO representatives are experts within the platform and know how to increase its performance on search engines.

Despite the ever-changing search landscape, all digital strategies have to include SEO – whether you refer to it as “organic search engine optimization”, “local SEO”, or an “ongoing content strategy”. The practice is far from dead. It’s a continually evolving craft, subject to myriad changes that happen at a fairly regular cadence (algorithms, SERPs, mobile adoption). It’s been this way since the late ‘90s. If you and your provider adapt accordingly, the outcome will be competitive local and natural digital visibility.

We’d love to hear what you think! Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments below – and keep on creating quality content aimed at customers.

Jessica Cronin is a senior search strategist at