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Autobytel gets traction on sales requests

Autobytel.com Inc. (Nasdaq: ABTL) rose 18 percent, up 2 15/16 to 18 11/16, on Thursday after the online car selling service said that it was recording $1 million an hour in car sale requests.

The requests, however, don't indicate actual sales for Autobytel, which acts as a broker for its dealers. The company said the number of requests, equal to $24 million a day, could result in $9 billion in car sales for its dealers. The company didn't indicate how the sales requests would help revenue.

Despite Thursday's gains, Autobytel is still trading below its initial public offering price of $23. The Irvine, Calif. company's shares have been struggling since it went public in March, three days after rival Autoweb.com Inc.'s (Nasdaq: AWEB) IPO.

Autobytel has a network of more than 2,700 car dealers from which the Web site can refer its users to when they want to purchase a vehicle.

Autobytel generates sales from advertising and through its referral service when buyers go through the site to find a car dealer.

The press release sounds a lot like a release from Priceline.com Inc. (Nasdaq: PCLN), which announced earlier this month the sale of 7,000 airline tickets in a single day. The news prompting a boost in revenue estimates from Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget.

But the comparison is a weak one. Priceline, through special arrangements with airlines, buys tickets in bulk and then resells them. The purchase of the tickets presents Priceline with greater risk if the shares aren't sold, but greater profit margins than merely acting as an online travel agent. Autobytel doesn't own any cars, it's just a broker - lining up buyers with sellers.