To date, most adopters of search engine optimization have been B2C companies operating in an e-commerce environment. However, as business-to-business marketers recognize the potential of search, many are seeking ways to implement an effective B2B search engine optimization strategy.
To be successful, however, one needs to understand the critical differences between B2C and B2B SEO, and the implications of those differences.
A Difference in Goals
While the ultimate goal of both B2C and B2B marketing is to create a sale, the goal of B2B search engine optimization couldn't be more different from its B2C counterpart. SEO's goal in the B2C environment is usually to generate an online sale in a single visit. Ideally, searchers find a high-ranking site in the search engine results and navigate quickly from the landing page through a prescribed channel, and ultimately through the shopping cart and checkout process.
This, however, is unrealistic for most business-to-business marketers, whose products and services are generally not acquired in an e-commerce environment. The goal of search engine optimization for most B2B marketers is not an immediate sale but, rather, inclusion in the consideration set, the short list of preferred suppliers from which the ultimate provider will be selected.
Conversion in the B2B realm is usually not immediate; nor does conversion typically occur online. In B2B search engine optimization, getting found is merely the beginning.
Stickiness Versus Prescribed Conversion Channels
Because driving site visitors through a prescribed conversion channel is often not applicable in B2B, your focus should be on "stickiness"—getting visitors to delve deeper to other relevant, confidence-building content. Often, the primary motivator in B2B purchase decisions is risk, or, put another way, fear of making the wrong decision. Therefore, one of the key objectives of B2B searchers after they click through to your site is to evaluate both your company and its offerings.
Although searchers ultimately seek a solution to a need, their predominant behavior during the purchase research phase is to separate wheat from chaff. Their purpose in clicking deeper into a site is one of vetting.
Companies that make the initial cut move on to the next round of consideration. Make sure that your landing pages have carefully chosen links to other content that will build credibility and get you in the consideration set.
In addition to creating strong content, use a good Web analytics program to help you evaluate stickiness factors, such as length and depth of visits, time spent on specific pages, and whether the number of return visitors is growing.
Greater Importance of Copy
The words that you use both in on-page and off-page copy have a tremendous influence on rankings in the search engine results. However, nowhere is the nature of copy more important than in B2B search engine optimization. Not only does Web-page copy need to influence ranking in the search engine results, it must also persuade the business purchaser. Yes, of course this is true in the B2C environment as well, but the nature and purpose of B2B copy is vastly different.
The typical consumer good on a Web site gets evaluated on things like product specs, available colors, pricing, and perhaps a short blurb extolling the product. As noted earlier, however, business purchases are most often driven by risk avoidance. Just because you offer the product or service or have low pricing doesn't mean you're the best source for it.
B2B purchasers do much more research as part of the buying process. Your ability to establish confidence and credibility by writing intelligently and persuasively about your product and your company—and your ability to clearly articulate complex selling propositions—will determine whether you continue to be considered as a potential supplier. Therefore, not only the landing page copy needs to be compelling—so does copy on every other page.
One Searcher. Multiple Searches.
In B2C, the typical sales cycle may be as short as 10-20 minutes from search to sale. In the B2B world, the buying cycle may last months or even years. That's because B2B purchases undergo much more scrutiny throughout all phases of the buying cycle—and in those phases the same person may perform multiple searches, each with a different intent.
In the first phase (research), the purchaser is seeking alternatives, seeing who's out there to potentially fill the need. During this phase he may use generic search terms related to the product or services sought in order to form a short list of potential providers. Later, in the evaluation stage of the buying cycle, the purchaser's focus turns from researching potential suppliers to researching specific issues related to the product or service, such as performance, efficiency, maintenance, ergonomics, whitepapers, etc. Different search terms will be used and different sites will be found—and different suppliers may be unearthed, supplanting those previously identified. Late in the process, just prior to the purchase decision, the searcher has by then a thorough understanding of specific needs, wants, and issues affecting the purchase decision. One last round of searching will likely ensue to confirm the purchaser's intended direction, and again different search terms may be used.
In B2B search engine optimization, it's important to understand the search terms your prospect may be using in the different phases of the buying cycle. If you have a good understanding of this, you can use SEO to ensure that you not only get initially found but also get confirmed at every search in the buying cycle.
One Prospect. Multiple Searchers.
While most B2C purchases involve a single decision-maker, the typical business purchase is influenced by multiple parties throughout the buying cycle, each with the ability to easily research and evaluate purchase alternatives. The user-buyer wants to know how the product will improve day-to-day operations. The technical buyer is charged with ensuring the product meets established specifications. The economic buyer is concerned with ROI and other financial matters. The prospect may also have engaged consultants or "coaches" that help the company with the decision-making process.
Today, each of these parties has the ability to quickly and easily research purchase alternatives and vet purchase recommendations with a few clicks of the mouse—and all use varying search terms depending on their role and their specific concerns. Although one person may have spent weeks doing purchase research, a VP who spends only 10 minutes on Google can raise enough questions to dramatically alter the organization's purchase decisions.
Good B2B search engine optimization considers the different influencers and the search terms they are likely to use—and has landing pages that speak to the various influencers.
More Complex Keyword Strategy
B2C searchers often use well-known brand names. Many already have a firm idea of what they want to buy; they merely want to find the best source for it. When B2C searchers do use generic terms, there is often less variance in the terms they use. (A person searching for sweatshirts is likely going to use that term.)
B2B search engine optimization presents many more complexities. A person searching for material handling solutions may search for "material handling," "conveyor systems," "conveyor technologies," "systems integrators," "warehouse management systems," or dozens of other related or more specific search terms. Next, there is variation in what to call things. Take, for instance, the subject of this article. Is it B2B SEO, B2B search engine optimization, business-to-business SEO, BtoB search engine optimization, or some other combination? You'll get different search engine results for each of these queries.
Searchers may use industry-specific lingo or generic terms. Also, B2B searchers often use search terms focused on the need or problem, rather than a product or solution. Add to that the multiple searches during the buying cycle and the multiple parties potentially influencing the sale, and the complexity of SEO keyword strategy grows exponentially—and that can have a huge impact on landing pages and site architecture. You can see that it quickly gets quite complicated.
Keyword strategy is critical to successful business-to-business SEO. Make sure that you take the time to fully explore and select the potential terms that searchers are likely to use in the purchase process, and design your site accordingly.
Knowing the Search Engines Your Prospects Use
People use different search engines, and different search engines use different algorithms to index content and rank search results. If you want a page to rank highly on MSN, you'll optimize it a bit differently than you would for Google.
It's important to know which search engines your prospects use and how to optimize web content for those search engines. Although there is little research regarding B2B search engine optimization, what research there is indicates that B2B purchasers overwhelmingly prefer Google. Absent compelling reasons to the contrary, optimize for Google. In doing so, you'll still do pretty well on Yahoo and MSN, but don't make them your primary focus.
Also, the list of vertical search engines continues to grow. Make sure you know which vertical search engines your prospects might be using, and take steps to ensure your presence in those search results as well.
Conversions in B2B SEO
Conversion ratios in the B2C environment are measured as the percentage of organic click-throughs that resulted in a sale. (Remember, the goal in the B2C environment is usually to generate an online sale in a single visit.) Much analysis goes into conversion ratios, and why and at what point site visitors abandoned the sales funnel, or conversion channel. Because the sales funnel in B2C SEO is so narrow and short, measuring the impact of optimization is quite easy and immediate.
As noted above, however, conversion in the B2B realm is rarely immediate or online. So how does conversion apply to business-to-business SEO? How can we measure the effects of SEO in the B2B environment? In the second article in this series, we'll address those questions and discuss conversion strategies in B2B search engine optimization.