A battle is shaping up among Honda, Acura and their dealers for control of Google shoppers.
Dealers and brands sometimes collide by bidding for the same keywords that generate the most visible ad positions atop a consumer Google search for a vehicle.
That competition can drive up Google ad prices, said Brian Pasch, whose PCG Consulting helps dealers with digital marketing.
It's a quandary Honda Motor Co. and its Acura brand seem intent on tackling.
At a national dealer meeting in San Antonio on April 2, Honda executives told dealers they were looking at ways to minimize overlap on Google advertising buys between the brand and dealers. Specifics would come later.
Pasch stirred up a hornet's nest with a series of blogs on the subject in the past month. He made waves by declaring, based on sources he would not identify, that Acura is considering barring dealers from bidding on five popular keywords and phrases on Google: Acura, Acura.com, Acura USA, Acura Cars and Acura Auto, so as not to drive up prices.
The strategy, he says, would have the unintended consequence of allowing competitors and third-party shopping sites, such as cars.com, to get ad positions at the top of Acura vehicle search listings, which now are dominated by the manufacturer and its dealers.
Google is the world's dominant search engine for people looking for cars and nearly everything else. Two of every three visitors to a dealer Web site get there from clicking on a Google link.
Those links come in two forms: paid search ads that appear as shaded links at the very top and on the right side of a Google search page; and unshaded links, called organic, that appear after the paid search ads at the top.
Those top paid search ads are crucial to advertisers. As a rule of thumb, about twice as many people click on the first paid search ad as the second, and half as many click on the ad in the third position as in the second.
That's why the debate at Honda and Acura is so important, Pasch said. If dealers are restricted from buying such popular keywords as "Acura" and "Acura cars," their vehicles and stores are going to lose visibility on Google, he said.
The potential impact is even greater for mobile users, Pasch said. Cellphone car-shoppers are more likely to use simple searches such as "Acura" and, typically, just two paid search ads and one organic link fit on a mobile search page, Pasch said. "Nationwide, 35 to 40 percent of car shoppers are using mobile," he said.
Though prices can rise when brands and their dealers bid for the same keywords, the inflation is not so prohibitive as to keep dealers from bidding if allowed to by Honda and Acura, Pasch said.
Brian Benstock, general manager of Paragon Honda and Paragon Acura in New York City, is following the developments with interest.
Benstock, a digital-marketing enthusiast, said he went to the Honda dealer meeting with some trepidation, given Pasch's blogs.
But he said that after listening to Honda executives, he walked away reassured that whatever was coming would be rolled out gradually and with much dealer input. He declined to discuss specifics in recognition of Honda's request for confidentiality.
He said, "What I heard was that Honda would work with dealers so that we're not stepping on each other's toes."