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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Nenni

Why Bad Data Kills Car Search

Updated: May 1, 2020

I’ve recently begun searching for a replacement family vehicle, and since I’m in the car business, it gave me a great opportunity to immerse myself into the car shopping experience. I’ve learned quite a bit already; mostly involving what is still broken in our industry around inventory management and searching. Since I’ve been in the inventory management and vehicle data business since 1993, problems in this area are even more painful. Here’s the story.

I’m searching for a specific make, model and trim level using one of the major automotive search portals. In this case, I was searching for a used Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. “Unlimited” in the model name means the Wrangler has 4 doors, a very popular vehicle these days. I chose the vehicle make as “Jeep”; I chose the model as “Wrangler” since. there were no options for Wrangler Unlimited. I chose the trim as “Unlimited” (Unlimited is not a trim option; the choices should have been Rubicon, Sahara, etc.). Unfortunately the portal said they couldn’t find any matching cars. What the…? I see so many of these vehicles on the road; this can’t be right since I live between two very populated metropolitan areas. I reluctantly decide to remove the trim level and just search for Wranglers (all trims). I know this means I will potentially waste time sifting through vehicles, but my gut says either the search engine or the vehicle data was put together by people who don’t understand how consumers want to shop. The portal returns 102 matching vehicles. I naturally assumed that these would all be 2-door Wranglers; but this is not the case. My search results are peppered with both 2-door Wranglers, and 4-door Wrangler Unlimited vehicles. This stinks. Now I must either waste time sifting through the results, or try to get lucky by adding some keyword-searches into the mix. Either way, I am left scratching my head. Aren’t we just talking about a search engine and some data? The answer is yes, but the real answer is a bit trickier; I will explain.

In many cases, portals receive data from thousands of different data sources. They may receive a large feed from Dealer Specialties or another aggregator, or receive individual data sets from dealerships. The individual vehicle records may be described cleanly, with trim levels and options standardized for good searchability, or the data may be all over the place with trim levels and options missing or misspelled. The very best way to make sure that data is clean, standardized and normalized is to make sure it is collected using robust inventory management software on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Ideally, this software would be used while the individual is actually touching the vehicle, verifying the trim, transmission, options and packages, and put into a standardized format with style IDs, OEM option codes and OEM package codes. Otherwise, even the best search engines will have a hard time properly searching the data the way the consumer wants to shop.

In addition, the front-end search interface on the portal or dealer website must be properly designed. Each search parameter must be correctly mapped to trim levels, transmissions, options and option packages. The vehicle inventory data must be described in the same way the inventory search engine will locate it. Ideally, you should choose vendors that have strong vertical integration and offer a more complete platform solution. This means, they collect, describe, and VIN decode inventory in the same way that their websites or portals search for the inventory. For many providers this integration is too complicated, messy, or simply not very glamorous to warrant the effort. However, it is incredibly necessary and is the true back-end heavy lifting that must be done if we are to keep the car shopper high on our priority list.

In an ideal world, both the front-end search interface, and the back-end inventory descriptions would be built using a quality VIN decoding and configuration data set. In addition, both your inventory management tool and your website or portal search interface would be built with that same data. In that case, it might look something like this:

By consistently describing the data, and searching for it using the same approach, you give the consumer a large number of choices and drill-downs. You also have confidence that when the consumer searches for specific trim level, options and packages, that only those vehicles are displayed for them.

It is difficult to determine what was the specific problem on the portal I used to search for Wranglers, but the bitter reality is that today’s modern shopper is so averse to a bad experience, that they will simply bounce this site and shop somewhere else. The key takeaway from this article is to make sure your inventory is searchable both on your website and on the portals where you distribute your vehicles. If that is not the case, you could be wasting your advertising dollars listing vehicles that are difficult or impossible for shoppers to find.

Have you shopped your dealerships vehicles lately?

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