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Upstart car sites win consumers' trust

New research shows that consumers perceive upstart automotive sites as more balanced and credible than the sites of the big automakers.

Independent automotive Web sites continue to whip those of the big carmakers, according to new research, although the giants are stepping on the gas.

According to a Jupiter Media Metrix study released Monday, third-party automotive sites such as Carpoint.com and AutoTrader.com receive far more visitors than sites such as Ford.com and Toyota.com. The independent sites are considered musts for car shoppers looking for comparisons, objective reviews and owner critiques.

The top five online destinations in terms of unique monthly visitors in the automotive e-commerce niche are Kbb.com, the online site for used-car buyer's guide Kelley Blue Book, Microsoft's Carpoint.com, AutoTrader.com, AutoVantage.com and Edmunds.com. Each had at least 2 million visitors in July, according to the survey.

By contrast, large automobile companies did not have a single site fall in the top 10.

The most popular automaker site was Ford.com, which had 1.2 million visitors in July and came in at No. 11--after start-ups such as eBayMotors.com and AAA.com, the Web site for the Automobile Association of America. General Motors' Chevrolet.com, Toyota.com and BMW.com rounded out the list of automakers' most popular sites, with respective ranks of 13, 19 and 31.

Jupiter analyst Julie Ask said the independent sites owe their popularity to consumers who perceive them as more balanced and credible than automobile manufacturers' sites--and they provide clues for automakers hoping to boost traffic to their own online sites.

"While car manufacturer sites are catching up, consumers still perceive third-party auto sites to be more impartial and innovative, offering tools, chat rooms and a breadth of links to services that were only recently adopted by some manufacturers," Ask said.

Despite their lackluster performance, automakers may soon surpass the start-ups in terms of traffic. According to Jupiter, growth rates for the automakers' sites outpace those of their smaller competitors.

Unique visitors to automobile manufacturer sites increased more than 30 percent from the previous year, from 6.2 million to 8.2 million. Traffic to automotive resource sites increased about 25 percent during the same period, from 16 million to 20 million.

"This situation mirrors the retail, travel and financial services industries, where traditional brick-and-mortar businesses have been growing their online audiences at a faster rate than their Internet-only counterparts," Ask said. "To maintain their lead, third-party resource sites must not only provide a higher-quality experience to the consumer, but also partner with manufacturers and provide enough value to dealers so that they will be willing to work with multiple sources for leads and advertising."

Regardless of how independent sites fare in the long-term competition, it is clear the automotive e-commerce niche has staying power. Car shoppers have become some of the most avid Internet researchers, spending an average of more than 10 minutes on automotive sites every month, according to the survey. Only the entertainment category, which includes the popular gaming subcategory, has higher user patronage.