For many consumers, purchasing a vehicle is a huge decision. For that reason, many turn to a wealth of online information via third-party automotive information websites and smartphone apps. These websites have become increasingly important as new vehicles are packed with more technology and higher trim packages, which have pushed prices higher and higher -- making smart decisions on these big-ticket items all the more important.

"Over the past five years, we've seen an explosion of innovation that has been employed by third-party automotive sites, among others, to guide automotive shoppers through the process," said Thomas King, J.D. Power vice president of PIN OEM operations, media and marketing, in a press release. "However, in the end, it always comes back to content and we have found that the top-performing sites are better at delivering key information on different devices."

A consumer using a desktop computer to search for an SUV.

Image source: Getty Images.

But which automotive website best serves the consumer? Fortunately for us, J.D. Power has evaluated and ranked the well-known websites in its recent "2017 U.S. Automotive Website Evaluation Study Cross-Device." 

How the survey works

From a 10,000-foot view, the redesigned study evaluates the websites from both desktop and mobile platforms. The study judges overall site function and the importance of its features to online consumers. Desktop and mobile rankings are separately awarded and are based on combined scores of the four measures -- navigation, appearance, information/content, and speed -- on a total 1,000-point scale. Without further ado, here are the rankings as well as some key takeaways.

One surprising laggard to me was TrueCar (NASDAQ:TRUE), which has spent much of the past year developing and improving its website to improve marketability of its dealership network. Its effort to do so has dramatically improved its stock price over the past 12 months by 187%. That said, despite and taking the top two spots for their websites, both failed to hold those spots on the mobile rankings.

The second spot here, CarGurus, might surprise some, but it's a popular website and apparently even more impressive on mobile applications. It's great news for a company that's recently exploring an initial public offering and is rumored to be valued at roughly $1 billion.

Key study takeaway

One key finding from the J.D. Power study was that the consumers were far more likely to return to third-party websites with higher scores: 76% of satisfied shoppers (scores of 901 or higher) would "definitely" return. That might seem like a no-brainer, but with no switching costs involved, it's surprising to see that much loyalty to a website from a consumer who's presumably shopping around in the first place. On the flip side, if a website ranked poorly (scores of 500 or lower), only 3% of shoppers would "definitely" return. The key takeaway here for the websites, especially as new-vehicle sales in the U.S. plateau: Do content right, and do it right the first time.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.