Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Are You Looking For?

- by Brian Crounse and Sang Oh

The trend of people researching products and services online continues to grow, and vehicle maintenance and repair is no exception. We’ve been beating this drum for months. Last week we provided a pretty good example of how people, even the less digitally inclined, are going online to research auto repair, and what the consequences are. This week, we take a broad look at some online trends.

There are many paths that people follow when using their computers, iPads or smartphones to look for information. Google is but one of the places people start, but of course it’s a big one. Further, Google offers some useful tools for tracking what people have been searching. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so we decided to use Google Insight to get a sense of recent trends in the market. All we’re tracking here is relative search volumes of certain keywords, which provides an index of what people are thinking and doing online. We are not (in this entry) looking at other entry pathways (e.g. Yelp), or what results people find with Google and what their next steps are. The y-axis of this chart is simply an indexed measure of relative search volumes.

First off, we see in Chart 1 that Vehicle Maintenance-related search activity is on an upswing (remember, this is relative to all search activity). The upswing really started in 2008. We also see a strong summer peak here, which mostly confirms that the data is reasonably accurate.

Chart 2 shows search insights for popular auto-related repairs and part categories. The volume and growth here is clear; searches for oil changes and batteries are dominant terms and are on a steady upswing. Are we sufficiently visible with paid and unpaid search results for these terms (answer: no)? Should we be (answer: yes)? However, we also need to keep in mind that search, like the demand distribution for our parts, is a long-tail game. We need to be smart on both ends of the spectrum (the fast and slow movers).

In chart 3, we see search trends for several automotive OEMs. The search terms included all relevant brands (e.g. for Chrysler we did “Chrysler + Dodge + Ram + Jeep + Mopar”). We’d expect that search volumes would roughly track the vehicle fleet size. So Ford, Honda, and VW in particular have strong brand-related volumes. But here’s something interesting- while people search for “Ford” (in the context of vehicle maintenance) a lot, and people search for “oil change” a lot, very few search for “Ford oil change”—see Chart 4. This holds up across the board.

These results suggest that people tend to search either by the brand of their car (and we should own these search results), or repair type, but not both. This highlights the need for targeting those unbranded search terms.

We look at some aftermarket companies in Chart 5. Jiffy Lube has dominant mindshare here, which is consistent with the “oil change” volume. But the others all have web-religion and are growing in terms of search volumes. Autozone, in particular, has separated itself from the pack over the past couple of years.

The next chart (Chart 6) illustrates what’s going on. It’s convenient that the three terms shown, Ford, oil change, and Jiffy Lube all converged in 2007. Prior to that, Ford had the lead. Since then, the generic “oil change” has become dominant. The good news is that Ford, the bellweather OEM search term, has bounced back, and maintains a small gap over the bellweather independent term, Jiffy Lube.

Bottom Line:
  • Search volume for auto maintenance continues to grow- no surprise there.
  • Generic searches like “oil change” and “battery” are high volume and growing; they are a key gateway to capturing customers’ attention.
  • Apart from Jiffy Lube, aftermarket retail brands don’t have dominant mindshare, but they are improving.
  • We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: OEMs need better visibility for generic and unbranded search terms. This is best done by working together.
Details about the data:
This data was collected from the Google Insights for Search tool, for the U.S. only, for the Vehicle Maintenance category. How exactly Google classifies a search that includes “Ford” as Vehicle Maintenance (vs. Vehicle Shopping) is a bit of a mystery; for the moment we’ll trust that Google has more or less figured this out. The data is heavily normalized; the y-axis on these charts is simply a measure of relative frequency of various search terms. The chart shows trends between the periods of January 2004 to the end of 2010, based on 6-week averages of the data. Follow this link for a sample query with the same filtering that we used. The bottom line is that this data is directionally useful, but must be taken with a grain of salt.

Brian Crounse is a principal at Carlisle & Company. He enjoys finding insights from large, complex datasets. Sang Oh is new to the Carlisle team; his focus in on our benchmarking activities.

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