When Les Kelley published his first modest "blue book" of car prices in 1926, it featured information on Hupmobiles, Duesenbergs and a 1921 Nash that was going for $50.
Times change. Kelley Blue Book is now a 330-person operation providing car shoppers with online access to reams of performance and pricing information on gas-electric hybrids, crossover utility vehicles and other four-wheeled creations not dreamed of back in the Roaring '20s.
The Irvine-based company is one of several online data providers -- Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com and Irvine-based Autobytel Inc. among them -- that are overhauling their websites in an effort to capture the attention of more car buyers and advertisers.
The goal, analysts say, is to get beyond the "data dump" approach that has characterized vehicle sites since the early days of the Web, threatening to drown consumers in a sea of statistics.
An estimated 75% of Web visits are now made over high-speed broadband connections. So the auto sites are adding video reviews, enhancing search capabilities and increasing interactivity to keep visitors engaged.
Moreover, the companies are trying to reach beyond car shoppers and draw in hot-rod enthusiasts, shade-tree mechanics and other car-minded Web users -- tapping into the entire "life cycle" of the car-owning experience.
"These companies have to think about ways that they can become more attractive to consumers," said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with research firm Gartner Inc. The aim is to provide "a much more human-like interaction experience rather than just bits and bytes" of data.
The potential audience is huge: Each year in the United States about 17 million new vehicles are sold, and more than 40 million used cars change hands. Experts estimate that 70% of car buyers do their research on the Internet.
Kelley Blue Book executives acknowledged that their site, www.kbb.com, was still seen by many consumers mainly as a source of used-car prices, even though it has included new-car pricing since 2003.
To appeal to new-car buyers, the firm began adding video reviews this year. And it just launched a feature that helps project a new car's resale value.
"Based up on our own surveys of consumers, it was the most asked-for piece of information," said Stephen Henson, Kelley Blue Book's executive vice president of consumer business and marketing.
Later this year, the firm will add what it has dubbed "the perfect car finder," an interactive tool for shoppers who aren't sure what kind of vehicle they're looking for. Punch in some broad parameters such as price range and type of vehicle, and the site will return a menu of choices.
Other online automotive sites also are making changes.
This summer, Edmunds.com plans to introduce an enhanced search function that uses "guided navigation" to give shoppers more options for sorting through vehicle choices. For example, users will be able to search for vehicles by horsepower, leg and headroom, cargo capacity or zero-to-60 times.
"It's intended to help you find the right vehicle faster," said Matthew Kumin, the executive vice president in charge of Edmunds' online venture. "It allows you to click your way through a lot of information a lot faster."
Edmunds also is beefing up its "life cycle" offerings. The company realized that its site was attracting more than just car shoppers who might use it for a few days to make a purchase and not be back for years. Some users, Kumin said, were coming back weekly and even daily in search of reviews, road-test reports and other information.
Edmunds launched Inside Line in 2005 to appeal to the enthusiast crowd. It includes blogs -- which this week were updated hourly from the New York International Auto Show -- as well as extensive commentary and user forums. (Recent topic: "Stability Control -- Are you ready for it?")
In February, Edmunds debuted AutoObserver.com, a source for news and commentary about the auto industry.
Autobytel, meanwhile, is building a new site called MyRide.com that it plans to launch in late May.
Chief Executive Jim Riesenbach, who joined Autobytel from AOL last year to revamp the flagging auto site, said MyRide would provide home-grown editorial content while offering a powerful search engine to link users to an array of information about vehicles.
"The site is both a destination and a gateway," Senior Vice President Mark Canon said.
Like other auto websites, Autobytel hopes to attract users from outside the tight circle of car buyers.
"We want to bring together in one place the activities that people engage in on the Internet that have to do with automobiles," Canon said.
Other sites have been busy as well. EBay Motors, the No. 1 site for vehicle shoppers, recently added a feature that would allow users to search for new and used cars in their local areas.
And Cars.com, which is partly owned by Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, added new pricing tools last week, including a five-year cost-of-ownership feature.
With so many options, it's no wonder the average consumer visits seven websites when researching a car purchase.
"We're all competing for the same eyeballs," said Henson of Kelley Blue Book.
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Race in cyberspace
Auto-related websites with the highest number of visitors in February
*--* Visitors Change in Feb. from (Millions) Feb. '06 EBay Motors U.S. 12.6 +37% AutoTrader 6.1 +28 Kelley Blue Book 5.6 +6 Yahoo Autos 5.1 +46 Edmunds.com 4.9 +54 MSN Autos 3.9 -35 Cars.com 3.8 +16 AOL Auto 3.4 -6 CarsDirect.com 2.3 -18 CarMax.com 2.1 +36 JCWhitney.com 1.9 +43 CarFax.com 1.5 +8 NADAguides.com 1.4 +1 CarDomain Network 1.4 +12 Autobytel 1.3 -40
Source: ComScore Media Metrix