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Picking the Best of the Best - by Steve Stauning

Picking The Best of The Best

By Steve Stauning

 

As some of you may know, I served as the director of ecommerce for the Asbury Automotive Group (NYSE: ABG) a few years ago. One of the most rewarding things about working for a publicly-traded MegaDealer Group was the ability to not only negotiate from a position of strength (we had over 120 franchises back then), but also the luxury of relying on a team of experts to help us always select the best of the best providers of any product or service.

 

While our process was exhaustive (we once issued an infamous – and wholly unnecessary – 33-page RFP during a search for a new website vendor); we had a distinct advantage that most private dealerships do not have: we had the time to fully and deeply investigate all potential vendors. Our corporate staff didn’t have to worry about selling cars or responding to leads, so we had plenty of time to properly vet the suppliers.

 

Snake Oil Sellers Need Not Apply…

 

I’ve always had a passion for cutting through the BS in the automotive vendor world; and it actually makes me sick to read some of the gaming that goes on in the blogs (including this one from time-to-time). Not because it’s allowed – I don’t think it’s the editors’ jobs to investigate the veracity of every discussion post – but because private dealers are most often the victims of these opportunists. At Asbury, we could easily see through the smoke screens and sniff out the snake oil; for private dealers, this is not always so simple.

 

That’s why I’ve been so excited by what’s going on at Dealers United.

 

As some of you now know, I’ve had the privilege of helping Dealers United with their ambitious launch. Among the very cool things I get to do, is leading the vetting team for Dealers United approved vendors. This process, as I will describe briefly below, is hands down the most intensive investigation I have ever heard any company undertake to find the best of the best providers in our industry. (Even more exhaustive than the searches we conducted at Asbury.)

 

It’s No Beauty Contest…

 

I can tell you that assisting the Dealers United team has been unbelievably rewarding. The first deal (releasing March 28) is for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) services, and we left no stone unturned.

 

We didn’t just pick the most famous, most vocal or biggest names in automotive SEO and hand one of them a contract; although we certainly invited these companies to participate. We also didn’t care what the blogs said about a company (I already wrote that those can be gamed); so a self-made industry reputation and lots of dubious industry awards only got you an invitation to participate in the search.

 

These particulars didn’t sway us just as they should never sway you; and I can guarantee these wouldn’t influence the publicly-traded MegaDealer Groups when they’re looking for a provider. Simply put: we were on a mission to find the best, not the loudest.

 

A Dealers United Vetting is not for the Weak…

 

We started with 35 SEO Companies (yes, thirty-five); and over the following four weeks, we completed an intensive investigation into their abilities (both stated and not). We examined the search engine optimization content they were capable of creating (and replicating and maintaining) for their clients; and we studied hundreds of their client websites and tested these for search visibility on Google and other search engines. Additionally, we scrutinized their processes, strategies and tactics to ensure everything they provided was true “White Hat” SEO.

 

Finally, we studied their ability to generate meaningful (and authentic) offsite content and links for their dealer-clients.

 

So, after four weeks of this thorough investigation that included webinars with those we felt were the top six vendors, we whittled it down to the very best provider. This supplier not only has a fantastic SEO solution, but they also understand private dealers enough to know that their job is to deliver great search visibility, while allowing the dealers to sell cars.

 

In other words: they are physically doing the SEO work, and not busy trying to train your team on the ever-changing world of search engine optimization. (While we value private dealer education above nearly all else, the realities of SEO and dealership turnover do not lend themselves to wasting a dealer’s money on SEO training for his/her team. As I’ve learned over the years, your team should be busy selling cars, not writing SEO content.)

 

It’s Not About Price…

 

The best part about our process is that we only considered a vendor’s ability to provide great SEO to the Dealers United members. We didn’t care about personalities; we didn’t allow any gaming; and we weren’t swayed by anyone’s PR machine. We were singularly focused: great SEO and nothing else.

 

It wasn’t until we felt we’d found the best of the best did we consider pricing in the equation. In fact, pricing was not even contemplated or discussed with 29 of the 35 invited companies – their solutions (for various reasons) were obviously no fit for our dealer-members, so why ask how much it cost?

 

Once we found a great fit with an exceptional company providing world-class SEO, we worked to negotiate a deal… and boy oh boy, did we negotiate one phenomenal deal for our dealer-members. (Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until the deal is released to our members on March 28 to learn the details.)

 

I Know There Will Be Sour Grapes…

 

During my days at Dealer Specialties and Reynolds Web Solutions we occasionally lost large OEM bids; and each loss stung for a short period of time. The difference between those losses and the ones that we will dish out every month with Dealers United is that being selected from an OEM RFP process is most-often associated with providing the lowest price, not necessarily the best service. So the “endorsement” value a winning company would receive from an OEM bid was often worth very little.

 

Not so with Dealers United.

 

Given that we’re still experiencing phenomenal growth – while already three times larger than all of the publicly-traded MegaDealer Groups combined – a winning vendor in our search can truly hold their head high, because unlike an OEM RFP, this is not about price; and unlike industry awards or ratings sites, the Dealers United vendor selection process is intensive, exhaustive and comprehensive; and it cannot be gamed.

 

By the end of the last week of this search I was physically drained; but I can state without reservation that we selected the best of the best – and that makes me genuinely proud to be associated with something this important to dealers.

 

Good selling!

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Comment by Jesse Biter on March 18, 2012 at 10:20am

Kevin,

I appreciate you pushing the concept of dealer advocate.  Each day is our ZMOT because, like you said, we have to earn it everyday.  If there is EVER a day that you think DU isn't earning it then you are welcomed to email me directly at jesse@dealersunited.com or call my cell phone, 610-470-7137, and let me know, I will make it right.  I will not rest until every dealer is happy with our service. 

Regarding SEO, we surveyed our dealers and asked them what they wanted us to research for them.  They rated SEO #1 so we made it our first deal.  We (Dealers United) is NOT an SEO  company.  We researched SEO companies, spoke to our members that were happy with their SEO company, spoke to subject matter experts, etc - to come up with our selection.  While the rest of the company gets ready to launch our first deal (SEO) our vetting team is already working on the next three subjects our dealer members have asked us to research for them.

I appreciate you holding us to a higher standard than any other vendor and I ask that you continue to do so.  We will stop at nothing to help level the playing field for our dealer members.  Because dealers NEVER have to participate in an offer AND because, if they do participate, it's a month to month deal that they can quit anytime, we feel our dealer members are in the best position to ensure their happeniness with anything we research for them and bring to the table.

Thanks again!

Jesse Biter

Dealers United

Co-Founder

Comment by kevinkelly.it on March 17, 2012 at 6:05am

Many great posts coming from this one.  Including we won't be fooled again ( a Who moment) Google is informing us that SEO is not longer relevant, it's content optimization now.  Continuous education is crucial to success and anyone telling you otherwise is simply trying to sell snake oil. The Zero moment of truth is taking precedence over the master sales closer.  And the old adage, if it looks to good to be true and it sounds to good to be true, then . . .

If this post shows anything, it's you can't just tag dealer advocate onto your business, that has to be earned everyday.  Those that truly advocate for dealership success, really stepped up to the plate on this one and the take away for DU:  we are watching.  

Comment by David T. Gould on March 16, 2012 at 9:25pm

Waiting and Watching... Dealers United could; provide dealers with better pricing on vendors they are currently using, most likely do have greater resources to research providers, will likely provide enlightenment with some sort of "data" backing their decision(s) and there is no requirement to use their "best of the best" vendor(s). That said, the Verdict Remains Out.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 16, 2012 at 8:03pm

Google's head of search spam, Matt Cutts, announced as a side note during his panel at SXSW that Google is releasing an algorithm update specifically to target sites over doing their SEO.

Matt Cutts said this is Google's attempt to "level the playing field" between webmasters that build quality content versus webmasters who are just really aggressive SEOs.

I just heard this by listening to the audio recording from the panel he was on at SXSW a week or so ago.

He said, and I quote:

What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don't normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO - versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.
Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 16, 2012 at 7:29pm

Regarding Keith's post - Tier10 Marketing does not sell SEO services, and when I first went to work at ADP Digital Marketing, one of the first things I did was eliminate SEO services as a product sold by that team.  To this day, as far as i know of, ADP Digital Marketing does not sell SEO as a service and neither does Tier10 Marketing.  Throughout my career as an automotive professional I have expressed my opinions based on one simple principle - The Truth.  Sure, there have been times I have been wrong, but more times that i have been correct.  One thing runs true throughout everything I have written and published.  I believed it to be the truth and I believed that truth to be in the auto industry and car dealer's best interests.

Comment by Keith Shetterly on March 16, 2012 at 11:53am

To clarify, I am *not* asserting Ralph's motivations for his statements lie in any Tier 10 direction.  I'm just pointing out that associations exist, and whether or not they are highlighted they can be known and considered--and I'm not sure what, if any, associations exist re: this blog's opening post and the upcoming selection.  Thanks!

Comment by Keith Shetterly on March 16, 2012 at 11:45am

@ Tarry:  That's an excellent question and point.  Actually, I think it is always "Buyer Beware" when it comes to posts and sometimes comments, so at a minimum if someone I don't know writes a a post or comment that I find interesting I most often look at their profile to at least see the public associations.

I first thought of Dealers United as a way for dealers to express group buying power.  To now make it a vendor endorsement engine . . . well, no matter the best of motivations (which I can believe), I cannot individually support that direction.

To Ralph's statements, only he knows the reasons.  I know, for example, that most of the people on the ADM masthead--including Ralph himself--are Tier 10 employees.  This site existed prior to Ralph's position with that company, but it's a relationship that is clearly listed in their profiles.  And it should sometimes be considered, whether it has a positive or negative effect being very much about the context.  And sometimes the author should announce the associations involved.  I will assert that, to me, that type of announcement does not happen enough by far for anyone on these boards, and I hope that we improve it going forward.  

That said, I think such an announcement from Dealers United on the SEO "winner" in this case should also reveal all business associations, past and present, with persons involved from DU and whatever the selection is.  And the clear criteria for selection.  Just my opinion.

My footnote to all this is that, had we not had this (my opinion, again) silly "Oscars" hooplah here, it would lend a stronger air of credibility to the selection.

And I still *love* Steve Crim's work, no matter who wins!

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 16, 2012 at 10:57am

Tarry - Your point is valid and well worth consideration whenever anyone casts the type of aspersions I have suggested in my comments to this post.  The answer to your question is a resounding NO!

Why? This industry is unique in that our relationships and previous experience with everyone in the business form a good basis for evaluating and predicting future performance likelihood.

In this particular case, I have raised red flags because of my own first hand direct experience and knowledge.

For example, if you are involved in supplier selection procedures in this or any other industry long enough, you are likely to become exposed to corruption on a level that should have resulted in an Attorney General's investigation... if the parties involved would be willing to testify... Which in many cases they are not.  However, just because many professionals are not willing to come forward and go public with their exposure to corporate corruption, does not mean they should remain silent when they see the same thing looming ahead. 

In many ways, i think all the online professional networks; ADM, DealerElite, Driving Sales, Dealer Refresh and others should be a forum for people to express their OPINIONS and let the general population who visit their respective sites determine the credibility of those opinions. As I have previously stated, in my opinion Steve Stauning is the furthest thing in our business from an unbiased expert opinion when it comes to SEO vendor selection that you are going to find.

Comment by Tarry Shebesta on March 16, 2012 at 10:42am

Ralph- Does this mean anyone's past or current association with a company (vendor) be suspect when they mention or comment on a competing product? If so, half the comments on these forums would be suspect. 

 

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 16, 2012 at 10:27am

Steve Crim - Your comment makes me smile and seemingly proves my point... I would also like to clarify my position on Steve Crim and Screencrafters: All my experience and exposure to the work of Steve Crim and Screencrafters indicates they do a good job and are well worthy of consideration by any dealer for onsite SEO services. 

However, I have never seen any evidence that Mr. Crim and team have any knowledge or expertise whatsoever with Offsite SEO, which most SEO practitioners will agree is far more significant than onsite SEO. 

Lastly, if in fact Steve Crim and Screencrafters is the selected SEO supplier for any organization (including Dealers United) and that decision was led by Mr. Steve Stauning, then the integrity of the selection process is suspect to all, and proven to be corrupt to me.

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