A man is trying to buy a car online while on his phone and laptop.

The Pros and Cons of Modern Car-Buying


Whether you purchased a car online, are looking to buy a car online, or have done your fair share of researching car buying options, one thing is pretty clear…

The Automotive Landscape Has Come a Long Way

At the risk of depicting myself as some sort of fossilized leftover from a simpler time (I’m only 41 by the way), car buying used to be much more of a leap of faith. In a pre-internet world, research options were limited to physical copies of industry and trade publications, and car buyers had little choice but to take salespeople and private sellers on their word. There was no such thing as a free Vehicle History Report, and far more emphasis was put on test drives and climbing under the hood, placing far more responsibility on the buyer’s own shoulders to ensure their own satisfaction. Full disclosure, I was almost 30 (in 2007) before I ever utilized the internet to research a vehicle. But enough about car buying in the Paleolithic era of my youth…I’m sure you get the point.

The considerable changes facilitated by technology aren’t limited to the accessibility of information, CarFAX reports, third party consumer reviews, well-designed dealer sites, or whatever other tools empower us to shop for vehicles on our own time, and our own terms. The changes also extend beyond entities like online.cars and ‘Carvana’ (among others) who help to facilitate direct sales. The simple truth is, the car buying process has been altered in ways that the common consumer may never even realize.

What do we mean by this? Well, let’s touch on a few ideas to help frame the conversation:

  • First, when was the last time you embarked on a major purchase – especially the purchase of a vehicle – that didn’t begin with (or at least involve) an online search? Whether you’re looking for a dealership in your area, researching financing options, or seeking information about a specific make, model, and trim level, the use of search tools is almost a necessity.
  • Second, what search engine do you use? Since Google controls roughly 90% of the global search market, chances are they’re your ‘go-to.’
  • Third, what social media platforms and apps do you most commonly use? More importantly, do any of them include voice features or direct messaging that request access to your microphone?

A woman is on her phone and a search bar is displaying above it.

The Role of Search

Early in 2019, a global data company called Freckle IoT released a study based on the buying habits of 8,000 car buyers during Q4 of 2018. The key takeaways determined that:

  • The average consumer spends six months researching a potential vehicle purchase.
  • Over 70% of consumers are looking to do business with a dealership close to home and will drive no further than 20 miles from their home.
  • Within that 20 mile radius, most consumers will research five or more dealerships before selecting the dealership they’ll do business with.

These are important insights for a few reasons. First, it establishes an approximate timeline for most vehicle purchases. Six months is a long time when it comes to research and means that prospective buyers are sifting through a lot of information before they make their decision. Plus, a large portion of that information will be biased in some form, as it will come from the manufacturer, dealers, or wannabe review influencers.

The fact they buyers will be looking to do business with dealerships that are close in proximity is another interesting statistic. Assuming that it represents the low end of consumer willingness to travel, a twenty-mile radius introduces opportunities for plenty of dealerships to throw their proverbial hat in the ring. Think of what towns and cities your own 20-mile radius look like? Now think of how many dealerships are present within that radius — more than you might have realized, for sure. Now, consider your willingness to travel outside of that radius and it becomes easy to see just how many dealerships are vying for your attention.

In an online search, Google will factor in geography, aggregate those dealer sites and rank them based on how effectively they answer your query. And since more than two-thirds of consumers will never continue their search past ‘page one’ of Google’s search results, it means that dealerships are fighting for a maximum of thirteen spots.

This is why so many dealerships choose to employ Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies. Effective SEO empowers those dealerships to design content around the anticipated needs of potential customers. If successful, they’ll be (i) viewed as a more valuable resource in the eyes of Google (ii) ranked higher in search results and (iii) will be more likely than their competitors to convert new customers.

This is supported by another facet of the study we had mentioned above. In gauging the effectiveness of media spend, they ranked methods of influencing buyers by their level of persuasiveness. The results? Online advertising was the big winner, with 38% of consumers naming it as the primary influence in both their car buying habits and overall consumerism. Only 15% credited television, while 4% offered a shout-out to newspaper ads and only 2% gave props to radio. In other words, search matters.

A Constant State of Search

Because it’s such an influential entity, Google is linked to almost every other major entity out there — from Amazon to Facebook to YouTube. Combined, these form the four cornerstones of modern internet use, and each one incorporates both Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Voice Features to create an intuitive relationship with the user, in the hopes of retaining their hard-share of online traffic.

This depicts a paradigm shift in the way that we utilize search. With approved access to our conversations, we grant these platforms valuable insights into our habits, both as consumers and individuals.

What this means is that we’re refining search tools, even when we’re not using them. It’s why so many people are surprised that a product or service they just discussed with a friend, family member, or co-worker is now popping up in their social media newsfeed or YouTube ads. The same happens when we perform manual Google searches, or click on articles, ads, and links in our feeds. The only difference is that – now – our devices aren’t waiting for us to perform those manual actions. They’re listening to us. They’re anticipating our needs. In other words, we’ve created a world that places us in a constant state of search.

Here are some more statistics to put the power of Voice Search into perspective.

  • 1 in 4 (Wi-Fi equipped) American homes are also equipped with a ‘smart speaker’ of some sort (i.e.: Amazon Echo).
  • 96% of Facebook users utilize the mobile app on their smartphones.
  • For 2020, it’s estimated that screenless voice search will make up 50% of web browsing.

Whether you’re talking through a shopping list for household items, discussing a movie you’d like to see or restaurant you’d like to try, planning a vacation, or casually mentioning a vehicle that’s caught your eye — you should expect the internet to deliver more information (that it thinks you want), based on things that it hears you say. Some of it may be the result of intentional search queries, but many instances might come as a result of casual conversation.

A woman is using the voice search on her phone.

Car Buying Has Changed

In many ways, it’s for the better. There are now tools and resources which make valuable information more readily available to us, empowering us with more informed decision making. But with greater access to information comes a responsibility to use greater discretion. We must discern between what is factual (or at least valuable) and what could be inaccurate (or at least misleadingly biased).

The decision to buy a vehicle is one of the most substantial purchases that we, as consumers, make. For this reason, we should take online search results with a grain of salt. Understand that top-ranking results may (or may not) be your best options. Remember that convenience may make things easier, but it may not deliver the best quality results. Perform your due diligence and cross-reference multiple resources to ensure that you can buy your next vehicle with confidence.