Cars.com Drives Performance

 
 
By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2011-06-14
 
 
 

Staying ahead of the competition is never easy, but nowhere is the velocity of change more apparent than on the Web. Building and managing a world-class Website is a daunting and often overwhelming project. “Performance, security and the ability to display the right content quickly and seamlessly are crucial,” says Kayne Grau, vice president of technology at Cars.com. “It’s what differentiates a company.”

Few sites demand the complexity of Cars.com, which aggregates a tangle of data and presents it in a way that consumers can use to shop for vehicles, compare features, read reviews and obtain price quotes directly from dealerships. The company, a business unit of Classified Ventures, serves approximately 10 million car shoppers a month.

These days, Cars.com is shifting its technology platform into high gear. Using an integrated stack of IBM software to support sophisticated Web capabilities and, increasingly, advanced mobile tools, the 750-employee firm is wading into the Web 2.0 world with an array of widgets and features that make it easier for customers to view and extract the information they need.

Notes Grau: “Our goal is to exceed customer expectations by creating a rich user experience and providing the information people need to buy and sell cars more efficiently.” 

Revving Up Results

Kicking tires and comparing features on automobiles can perplex even the savviest buyer. To make a wise buying decision, consumers must sort through a tangle of performance specs, an array of high-tech systems and a variety of safety features. Cars.com recognizes that simplicity equals clicks—and revenue—and a less-than-seamless experience drives traffic to other sites.

To provide the richest Web experience possible, Cars.com offers comprehensive pricing information, photo galleries, buying guides, side-by-side comparison tools, original editorial content, expert car reviews and other content. The company earns revenue from online classified ads placed by automakers, dealers and private-party sellers. It also sells banner advertisements and provides lead-generation services.

“Our Website and business are founded on the premise that car shopping and selling should be a great experience,” Grau says. For Cars.com, this translates into a focus on award-winning content, sophisticated automotive research tools, and easy-to-access consumer and dealer reviews.

As a result, Cars.com has established a robust Website and online portals for dealers, employees and customers. Ten IBM pSeries servers, running WebSphere Application Server and WebSphere Portal Server software, aggregate content and applications to provide business mashups of both internal and external data. The environment relies on Akamai for Web acceleration and IBM PowerVM server virtualization to manage IT resources effectively.

However, the underlying infrastructure is simply a foundation for the company’s ambitious business model. Cars.com is currently integrating Web 2.0 technology wherever it adds value and streamlines interactions. The goal, Grau says, isn’t so much to achieve parity with other auto-comparison Websites, but to distinguish itself as an industry innovator that offers a powerful and easy-to-use platform.

Leveraging IBM’s PERL technology and ancillary tools, Cars.com delivers Web 2.0 content along with advanced features dynamically and on an on-demand basis, Grau explains. For example, one Web 2.0 initiative focuses on helping dealers list used vehicles at an optimal price when they place a classified ad.

Cars.com offers an AJAX-based widget that hits a back-end database and pulls dynamic information about inventory levels, buying trends and other factors.

Another Web 2.0 tool offers customers live data about incentives. When a potential buyer visits the Cars.com configuration tool and clicks through various automobiles and options, he or she sees the specific manufacturer and dealer incentives and rebates that currently exist—matched to the specific vehicle and exact configuration.

This capability, based on a mashup, eliminates the hassle of clicking to a different part of the Website and manually searching for the information. “It creates a real-time capability, or stickiness factor, for the customer,” Grau notes.

Steering Toward Success

An array of other Web 2.0 widgets and features already exist—or Cars.com has them in the works. For instance, the company is currently developing a master customer management system that will distribute customer data throughout the Cars.com enterprise. By interconnecting dozens of servers and systems operated by various data providers—including auto manufacturers, editorial content providers, organizations that rate cars and others—it’s possible to offer dynamically generated mashups that further streamline and support the auto buying experience.

The gains focus primarily on improved experience and greater internal productivity, Grau says. Web 2.0 culls and distributes a wide array of data from ERP, CRM and other enterprise systems.

Car.com is constantly looking for ways to propagate customer data throughout various systems. “We’re pulling data from different sources and finding ways to get it into our system faster so we can create competitive differentiation,” Grau says. “The goal is to make data available in real time.”

In fact, Cars.com is now developing a Web 2.0 widget that will tie together multiple customer and dealer entries. An employee will be able to pull up various customer leads and decide whether to merge them into a single entry.

The company is also looking for ways to use Web 2.0 for collaboration and knowledge management. Among other things, Cars.com is studying how it can tie together common business operations practices, policies and procedures in a user-friendly way with an assortment of wikis and widgets.

Finally, Cars.com is pushing into social media and looking for ways to further integrate content and offerings through sites and services such as Facebook and Twitter. The company aims to boost its visibility, while making information more accessible and digestible to a larger audience—mostly through the use of additional widgets.

Mobility is at the core of Car.com’s  business model. The company offers iPhone and Android apps—and a traditional WAP application for Blackberry—and it has built a mobile Website optimized for mobile phone browsers.

Already, about 25 percent of the firm’s total online traffic arrives through mobile devices. “This provide a convenient way to access data and rich content with the device of choice,” Grau explains. “It gives users an opportunity to move away from the traditional Website, and use apps and content that are more streamlined and convenient.”

Mapping Out a Future

Handling an ever-growing mountain of data and presenting it in a digestible way is no simple task. As a result, Cars.com has moved away from SOAP-based Web services and embraced lighter, more easily consumable RESTful services built on IBM’s DataPower Application. It uses JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), a data interchange format that can convert data into XML on the fly. It’s an approach that Cars.com finds more suitable for building widgets and Web 2.0 features. The goal is to build a flexible, scalable environment.

Managing the site and the use of technology is another key consideration. Executives meet quarterly to explore new opportunities and options—and prioritize projects. With about 100 IT professionals at the firm, it’s vital to manage the current environment, but also be able to adjust to rapidly changing business conditions.

Over the next couple of years, Grau hopes to ramp up the use of Web 2.0 and rich media to avoid static data that becomes easily dated. He also is looking to incorporate more video, images and user-generated content—including reviews.

To be sure, business success is heavily dependent on steering clear of the skid marks created by rapidly changing technology and fickle consumer preferences. Fortunately, Cars.com is in the driver’s seat when it comes to next-generation Web features.

“We want consumers and dealers to have an exceptional experience,” Grau concludes. “By providing content, features and easy to use tools, we’re making car shopping and selling a much smoother experience.”