LAS VEGAS -- Back in the 1990s, in the early days of the Internet, car dealers could have been forgiven for failing to buy the right domain name for a website.
No one could have predicted exactly how much time customers would soon be spending shopping for cars online. Even if they could have known, what would have been the right choice? .com? .net? .us? As the Internet grew, and speculators bought up favored URLs for resale, guessing wrong turned out to be an expensive mistake.
Here we are, 20 years later, and dealers have another such choice. Since last fall, a company called Cars Registry has been offering the chance to buy a URL ending in .car, .cars or .auto, thanks to the creation of new suffixes by ICANN, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that administers domain names on the Internet.
Cars Registry came to NADA this week to shop its URLs to dealers, who need a strong website name because digital marketing is so essential to what they do, argues Mike Ambrose, the company’s COO. A strong URL is easy to remember, he says, and there is evidence that it sends a strong signal about its owner, enticing consumers to spend more time on that company’s website.
“A strong domain name is the foundation of your digital marketing efforts,” Ambrose said. “Some dealers spend tens of thousands, hundreds of dollars a month just on Google AdWords, and the strength of your domain name is an indicator of how much time people are going to spend on your website.”
Cars Registry applied for the privilege to sell these URLs in 2012, paying $185,000 and filling out a 400-page application to explain how it would administer the new domains. It won multimillion-dollar auctions for some of its domains.
Since last fall, Cars Registry has sold its website URLs at wholesale prices to dozens of digital retailers, including GoDaddy.com, which sell the URLs to consumers. The going retail price for a buyer is around $3,000 per URL.
Automakers have raced to buy the URLs, mainly to protect the digital footprints of their brands. Chinese automaker Geely now uses Geely.auto as its primary URL, while Opel.auto redirects to the official German-language website of the General Motors imprint Opel, and Porsche.cars leads to Porsche.com.
Apple and Google, which are paying closer attention than ever to cars, have likewise bought URLs such as Apple.car and Google.car, possibly to stake out future turf.
For a handful of dealers, the $3,000 is clearly worth it.
Consider the case of New Jersey-based Brilliance Auto, a used-car dealership in Union, N.J., that had resided at BrilianceAuto.com -- with just one ‘L’ -- because the clearly superior BrillianceAuto.com had already been taken by a Chinese automaker known for its Chinese-market partnership with BMW. The dealership now uses Brilliance.Auto.
For other dealers considering taking the plunge, it’s impossible to predict whether a URL ending in .cars or .auto will be remotely useful in another 20 years. Maybe by then, we’ll search for information by talking to an artificial intelligence assistant like Siri or Cortana while wearing virtual reality goggles.
But an opportunity to start fresh may be worth a look.