The difference between a great Web site and the best Web site in automobile selling appears to be just how you ask the question.
Last week, Gomez Advisors, a Concord, Mass.-based consulting firm that publishes scorecards on electronic commerce sites for various categories, released its first critique of online automobile sites, ranking Microsoft Corp.'s Carpoint No. 1, edging out Irvine-based Autobytel.com.
The sites sell cars in similar ways, offer comparable amounts of information about cars, and have developed similar services, but Carpoint gets the nod because of the site's design.
"They do a better job of integrating their various features and it's easier to navigate," said Adam Weiner, an analyst with Gomez. "Microsoft has been doing it for years, they understand the consumers, they have a lot of resources and a lot of history with consumers and what they're looking for."
Not that Autobytel is far behind, Weiner pointed out. While Carpoint was ranked best overall, Autobytel got top honors from serious car buyers and for its ability to respond to user inquiries.
Autobytel Chief Executive Mark Lorimer said the company is already working on redesigning the site to make it easier for people to find what they need.
"It's a navigation issue," Lorimer said. "When you go to a Web site, the first question is, 'What do you want to do at that Web site, what are you there for?' That should be the first question that the Web site seeks to answer."
Instead, the Autobytel site lists its products and services, assuming that the person already knows precisely what they want, Lorimer said. Like most serious e-commerce sites, Autobytel.com undergoes continuous incremental changes.
Web design has changed constantly as companies place different demands on sites. Initially, most Web sites were simply online brochures. But now that they are stores, customer service centers, information exchanges and communities, their designs have become equally diverse.