Honda's Web Site No. 1 Based On Usefulness

HondaIt's that time of the year again. No--not the Presidential inauguration, but time for automakers to take stock of their consumer Web sites, not least because J.D. Power & Associates has launched the first wave of its semiannual rating of them. The firm says the best site is Honda's, taking top honors for usefulness in new-vehicle shopping.

The "Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation Study" measures automakers' sites to determine how useful they are to people who are either shopping for vehicles or about to begin. Scores are based on appearance, speed, navigation and the information/content of an automaker's site. Honda gained 14 points from the last wave of the study in June. After Honda came Porsche, Mitsubishi, Kia and Acura, which is Honda's up-market sibling.

Per the study, the industry is backsliding in Web functionality after several years of improvement. J.D. Power reports that the industry declined nine points since June. The new study, based on responses from 11,400 new-vehicle shoppers who indicated they would be in the market for a new vehicle within the next two years, says 16 manufacturer Web sites had double-digit decreases in the scores of their consumer sites. That, says the firm, is the largest decrease since the study's inception 10 years ago. The largest declines were in sections for determining monthly payment and comparing vehicle attributes within the information/content measure of the study.

Scott Kane, senior research manager at the J.D. Power & Associates, says that shopper needs are driving the increasing importance of comparison tools. "Shoppers with tighter budgets turn to those tools to get information. The big shift came when people started getting financially strapped and turned to [automakers' Web based] financial calculators and tools more and more. It is not necessarily the most important element of the site, but if you aren't doing a good job, it will hurt you," he says--adding that OEMs are also increasingly limited in terms of budget to support their Web presence. "As shopper budgets shrink, OEM budgets are shrinking too."

The firm says automakers are also cutting back on the variety of vehicle images and videos they have on their sites, or have simplified their photo and video offerings. Kane says GM's Hummer site is something of a poster brand for how creative is getting cut back. "They have cut way back on the kinds of images that entice shoppers," he says. "There is no comparison between Hummer's gallery today versus two years ago, when they were the number one Web site for product images. But it is across all automakers. Nobody is selling as many vehicles today so everyone is getting squeezed.

"Honda was higher in every major attribute, but one thing they do exceptionally well is navigation; it's easy to get around. For example, on the model page they show you a quick video and a link to watch more of that video if you want to, and the ability to move on if you don't."

He says Mitsubishi improved more than any other site. "What really helped their ranking a lot was speed. That was their biggest improvement. They went back and cut down on page weight so the site loads faster."

He says GM's GMC division site, Toyota's Scion site and Jaguar's site all slid. "Scion and Jaguar fell because of speed issues that bogged down shoppers and hurt the overall experience. Scion has continuously streamed video throughout the site, and it's a huge distraction."

He says the firm compared scores on Scion's site both from Gen Y consumers and from respondents at large. "[Gen Y scores] were actually well below the average for the site. So they aren't even satisfying their key demographic," he says. "Video should help you with the shopping process; branding is important, but don't let it take over."

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