White hat search engine optimization (SEO) principles that apply to B2B online marketing also apply to B2C, but B2B is otherwise a different animal.

True, to generate leads, local doctors or lawyers go after the appropriate local keywords to help their site rank well. And product pages on e-commerce sites can easily be optimized to match common keywords that users search for. But B2B online marketing involves other considerations for getting the most out of your SEO.

There is much more to understand on the B2B side, so let's break it down into three major components: understanding your business cycles, incorporating different types of keywords, and using offline marketing efforts.

1. Understand your business cycles

Just like the B2C buy cycle, B2B business cycles must be factored into SEO.

The Sales Cycle

The sales cycle begins the moment you get a sales lead. How long is it going to take to close a deal from that point? If a B2B company sells very expensive technical or complex equipment, its sales cycle is probably going to be much longer than that of a B2B company that sells office supplies.

Why is the sales cycle important to SEO? It's simple: SEO is a long-term effort. If it takes six months to ramp up your SEO program, you have to wait that long, plus your sales cycle time, to be able to determine ROI. You can't kill your SEO program if you don't see immediate results; that's because it already takes time for your sales cycle to go from "new lead" to "closed."

If your typical sales cycle is 12 months, it could be 18 months before you could attribute that sale to your SEO.

The Conversion Cycle

It's important to have good calls to action that fit your B2B sales cycle. So many B2B websites in complex industries (tech, medical, etc.) have a finite audience but do a lousy job of converting. I once worked with a client that sells high-end tech products. The company's site generates thousands of organic visitors per month, and it has a robust marketing/advertising campaign (online and offline). Its potential is incredible. However, the site's conversion is atrocious (0.01%).

SEO professionals argue over whether SEO people should look at conversion rates as a measure of success. But as an SEO professional/marketer, you have to be accountable for every part of the marketing budget. Conversion is essential. A B2B site needs to be built in a way that doesn't sacrifice brand for SEO and vice versa. Sites should include contact forms, compelling calls to action, buttons linking to various action points, and so on. As an SEO professional, I deal with a fine line between what I can tell a client to do (when the client doesn't want to listen) because I have to justify my company's worth. As the adage goes, "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

The SEO Cycle

If the online audience is small, the SEO cycle might be relatively short.

  • Scenario 1: Your competitors dominate. It's harder to break ground and gain visibility because, though there are fewer players, they do it well.
  • Scenario 2: No one does a good job. Your company therefore has huge opportunities and room for growth. You need to understand the competition and their online marketing efforts to get an idea of how long it will take to do well in your industry.

My dream client is a site that has been online for a long time (at least five years) and has a good trust factor with the search engines—but hasn't done any kind of SEO before. All the traffic it gets is organic and happens without the added push from SEO. If none of its competitors are actively engaging in SEO, it's amazing what can happen within the shortened SEO cycle.

2. Mix up your keywords

When selecting your keywords based on page content, you want to do a mix of branded and nonbranded keywords and search terms, as well as keywords intended for demand generation.

  • Branded. People look for specific model numbers, spec sheets, instructions, etc. B2B companies should want customers to look online for answers to their specific needs, because doing so eliminates phone time for customer service. It's not unusual for people to go online and search a website for answers before they call. Why not have the information waiting for them? Most general inquiries can be easily answered with a Q&A section on your website.
  • Demand generation. Sometimes keywords belong to an industry that not many people search for, but they are essential industry keywords that a site needs to perform well for. If you develop specific keywords for your products that no one is searching for, you have the opportunity to build a whole new set of keywords that you own. For instance, HubSpot created the term "inbound marketing" and built a successful business around it.
  • Nonbranded. These are the highly searched, competitive, and relevant keywords that someone who has never heard of your company can use as a search perimeter and still find your company.

3. Use offline actions online

Many companies fail this Marketing 101 rule: What you do offline, use online. Tradeshows, whitepapers, social networking, and so on— all your marketing efforts need to be integrated.

When doing anything in marketing, try to keep the idea of SEO in the back of your brain, especially for B2B.

Going to an industry tradeshow could cost you $20k for a booth so why wouldn't you want to use it in your SEO? Write and distribute an online press release about your booth at the tradeshow, bring a camera to record customers, and post them to video-sharing sites like YouTube. If someone from your company is giving a speech at the tradeshow, record and transcribe it. Then use it for your content marketing strategy: post a blog review of the conference, send your review to newsletter subscribers, and turn the PowerPoint presentation into a whitepaper.

* * *

B2B and B2C marketing have commonalities—and differences. Some of the rules apply, while others have to be tweaked to fit the B2B world. The same is true for SEO. You have a different set of challenges to overcome and new opportunities to take advantage of. But B2B businesses that can effectively navigate through SEO are sure to find it worth the effort and wait.

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Nick Stamoulis is the president and founder of SEO and social SEO firm Brick Marketing. He publishes a weekly SEO newsletter and an SEO blog, the Search Engine Optimization Journal. Reach Nick via 781-999-1222 or nick@brickmarketing.com.