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Concerns with local digital marketing company...am I missing something?

Feb 7, 2018
First Name
Hello everyone!

I've been a lurker around here for quite some time, gaining insight here and there. Over the past few weeks I have made a few startling discoveries with in regards to our digital marketing group that has consumed a huge part of our advertising budget. This post will almost certainly be lengthy, but try to stick with me..

We have a medium size dealership, moving roughly 250 units a month, and usually perform well by most metrics. However, last year we saw a noticeable decline in the amount of internet leads coming in. I'm not normally responsible for managing this, as our GM has an analytics company that compiles our monthly report along with our local 'newspaper' company (owned by Gannett). The monthly spend with the company amounts to roughly $25k/month. $4,500 of which is allocated towards 'PPC', the rest is spent on 'transitionals' and various forms of pop-up style advertising on the newspapers website, along with display advertising and e-blasts.

We have almost no insight into what's going on with them, the only metrics that are really paid attention to in our monthly meetings is our visit count. Month in month out we continue spending the same amount. We have no idea how the PPC campaign is being managed (or even what the ACTUAL spend is vs. what cut they take). We do not even see the number of clicks for PPC.

GM is given a planned budget for this year, about the same as last year only slightly more. Every dollar for the year planned ahead of time with $4,500 going towards PPC every single month. Which in my opinion reeks of mismanagement and complacency.

I was asked last week by the GM to analyze our ad spend with them, and to be honest with him and tell him if I thought he had his head up his ass (his words, not mine). So I begun digging.

I started performing some search queries (noting that our dealership external IP address was not being filtered, red flag number one). I found, pretty much what I expected, an extremely general 'branding' style campaign. Which, personally, doesn't make a whole lot of sense given our strong brand presence already, but whatever, this was a deficiency I anticipated finding.

Before I discuss the next event, let's jump back a few weeks. GM calls me up, screaming on the phone, "It just took 1 minute to load our website, FIX IT!" Okay, I hop onto our website, everything seems to be loading in typical fashion nothing amiss, I attribute it to poor cell phone data reception. Okay, back to the SEM analysis.

I click on our PPC ad, and I wait...and wait...eventually our pages displays, however it is moving EXTREMELY slow. Every database request the website is making to the server is incurring an additional 10 sec. of overhead. From the main page, for example, if you're looking for inventory and using the dropdowns to narrow your search, every selection requires an additional server call (New/Used -> 10 sec. -> Make -> 10 sec. -> Model -> 10 sec. etc.). When I see the slowdown, my brain starts immediately connecting the dots. When our GM looks for our website, he types our name into Google (because of course he does), and clicks the top link. Which is almost always an ad, as our PPC company is clearly targeting almost our name exclusively. When I visit our website I just type the URL into the address bar.

But how could this be? Why would our website be so much slower via PPC ad than direct/organic?

They're forwarding through a proxy, that's how. Their display url(and forwarding url) used "www.automotivedealer.co" not "www.automotivedealer.com". Upon looking at the ad, an invalid 800 tracking number was also being used. So at this point, I'm thinking, "WTF we've been sending our traffic to this shitty version of our website for...how long? Surely this couldn't have gone unnoticed for that long." When I saw the '401 unauthorized' console error messages while browsing the '.co' version of our site, I immediately had to submit a test lead using the forms on our site, as I know POST requests can occasionally have issue with forms coming from a separate origin hostname. I click the 'get e-price' button, wait the 10 sec. delay for the form to pop up, then fill out information, wait 10 sec, then get the "Thank you, your lead has been submitted and you will hear from us shortly!". I'm thinking, "Great, that could have been bad". HOWEVER, the lead never actually goes to our CRM. Not at all. No trace of it anywhere, tested multiple times.

Okay..how long has this been going on..seriously..I need to know how many people submitted forms requesting information about a specific vehicle that we never knew about. Again..SURELY this is a recent development, as this should have been caught almost immediately. I started looking into a our Google Analytics account, and noticed something strange again. The utm information from the url string in the ad wasn't showing up anywhere. If I clicked on our ads, I couldn't see myself browsing via GA 'real-time'. Nothing.

I discovered the GA account that our analytics company uses was filtered the the specific hostname of 'www...com'. Stepping up a level, I was immediately able to see the missing traffic and began analyzing. There were ~12,000 clicks to our '.co' domain, with ~150 form submissions beginning at July 1, 2017.

So not only was our PPC not working, it was effectively stealing our organic traffic (since we almost always rank #1 on organic for our brand searches), sending them to a shitty website where if they're even able to get to a VDP and submit a lead, we won't know about it.

*mind blown*

Anyway, this post is getting a little out of hand, so I'll just summarize the next part.

The rest of the ad budget with this company ~20k/month, also showed extremely poor performance over the entirety of last year, averaging less than 2 views/session, and the total number of form submissions that can be attributed to their traffic sitting at a ridiculously low '2'.

Has anyone else dealt with a situation similar to this? Spending astronomical sums on extremely poor performance with no indicator of actual performance besides 'pageviews'?

I'm currently building a comprehensive report to go over all of this before we bring in the company and discuss.
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Steve Stauning

3rd Base Coach
Mar 15, 2012
First Name
Wow (though I'm not surprised). The amount of waste and fraud in Automotive SEM (especially with nearly all companies that like to bundle lots of marketing into one giant budget) is astonishing. (The more they can bundle into one budget, the less accountability there is.)

It got to be so bad for the dealers who were asking me to look at this, that I felt compelled to do a live training video that explains how this and SEO fraud and waste are routinely happening and (in a non-technical way) how dealers can spot it and stop it. (The average dealer I see is wasting about $50,000 a year just on bad/mismanaged/fraudulent PPC.)

You may want to have your GM take 73 minutes to watch that video webcast I coincidentally recorded just last week (it's free and un-sponsored):
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Brendan Dolan

Full Sticker
Nov 17, 2017
First Name
Inspect what you expect. Most vendors claim to be turnkey, but most play the dangerous balancing act of minimum amount of account maintenance vs staff. I did a stint at a digital marketing agency, and we did weekly or biweekly check in calls with stores, and looked at performance of all vendors, clicks, site performance, lead count, and lead handling.

When I was in a store I worked with my vendors weekly to make sure things were on track. Your situation blows my mind.
Mar 21, 2012
First Name
I saw this a few years ago where a couple paid search providers used mirrored versions of dealers' website for paid search landing pages. Haven't seen it in quite a while though.

I've never been a fan of utilizing newspaper, phone book, radio, etc companies that now have "cutting-edge" digital advertising divisions. They always disappoint.
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Super Moderator
May 19, 2011
First Name
What do you even do in this situation?

Wow. Just wow.
I've seen this landing page trick (in the past year) and I've never understood it.
Build 1 great presence, funnel everyone there and learn from it. Enhance that one presence or A/B test it, but don't split your audience across sites.

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Lot Lizard
Feb 20, 2013
First Name
Gannett currently has a partnership with ReachLocal and all of their PPC campaigns are managed by their team. They employ proxy sites, which is a mirrored version of your site, autodealer.co, so they can control consumers and monitor leads from your consumers. We recently took on a new client that was working with Gannett. We asked them to do one simple task, connect Adwords to Analytics. They replied with a three paragraph email explaining how as a Google Preferred Partner their technology was proprietary and their tracking system, "ReachEdge, was better given that there is often a discrepancy in the way AdWords and Analytics present data."

Ask them if they'll connect Adwords to Analytics? I'm sure you'll get the same line of bullshit.

Run...run away...fast.

Alexander Lau

Feb 11, 2015
First Name
Not to sound crass, but it's unsurprising. Just do some searching on forums (probably here too). There are plenty of agencies that are caught red-handed delivering sub-par services. They've grown too big for their britches and are unable to scale. They get sloppy, the true talent gets moved up the ladder, they hire noob "techies" off of the street thinking they'll be able to manage automotive SEM and typically they're unable.

In terms of Paid Search, Display and Video advertising, I'll suggest a group that I used to work for (I know for a fact they do things according to best practices and make it easy on dealers) and that's Strong Automotive.

As a dealership, you have to have some form of multi-touch attribution in place to hold your vendors accountable, it's 2018. Make sure to understand what to look for and hold them accountable.

9 PPC Metrics You Need to Track
https://www.volusion.com/blog/9-most-important-ppc-metrics/ (dated but still hold true)

You probably already know these, but bang on them and anyone else you use. Don't take no for an answer. If they dodge these, run in the opposite direction.
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Super Moderator
May 19, 2011
First Name
Oh no.. ReachLocal?
I've seen some of their spend / fee percentages...