B2B search: it’s bigger than you think… and goes far beyond Google

Traditionally, B2B buyers have relied on catalogues, showroom visits, or sales reps to find the products they want to buy. But as digital becomes the channel of choice, marketplace optimisation and on-site search is becoming more important than ever.

Kieron McCann, Strategy Director at Wunderman Thompson Technology, discusses the importance of a calculated strategy for optimising search in a rapidly expanding digital marketplace and why deploying an omnichannel approach is just as essential for B2B business as their consumer counterparts.

When one wants to locate a product or a service, or merely source information on a chosen topic, most people ‘Google it’.

But what about booking flights, renewing car insurance or buying a bag of screws to put shelves up over the weekend? When something specific is in mind, chances are Google gets bypassed completely in favour of a comparison site or marketplace like Amazon or Screwfix (my current favourite place for buying things I never knew existed). So, when thinking of B2B buyers who have been using online search to buy all manner of things for decades, why assume their behaviour would be drastically different?

Search engines generate 51% of all traffic to business sites today – a figure that rises to 61% when including paid search – which probably comes as no surprise. What may be surprising, though, is that Google – or any search engine for that matter – is no longer the only show in town. Much like consumers, B2B buyers who know what they’re looking for largely shun search engines, which now only account for 30% of searches from these customers. In the UK and the US, over half (51%) of business buyers use Amazon Business to search for products, with 31% using its consumer site and other B2B marketplaces too. 

The way in which B2B buyers are finding and buying products is changing, a shift accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant supply chain issues.

Searching beyond SEO

If search isn’t just about finding things on Google, what is it about? SEO is still important – 30% of your market cannot be ignored – but there is still a lot more to search than that. If more than half of business customers are looking elsewhere to find products, not only must vendors make sure their products can be found, but they also need to build a cohesive experience that can convert those buyers into loyal customers.

Research has found that 35% of B2B buyers listed discoverability as one of the most important factors in their buying journey, with 32% saying that difficulty finding products had put them off buying online altogether. What’s more, respondents said that customisability (46%) and ease of purchase (36%) were important to them, which are additional factors that must be considered when building a search strategy.

An important aspect that differentiates B2B buyers from consumers is the extremely high specificity of their requirements, so it’s important that approaches to search account for this on both a business’ website and marketplaces. Features such as faceted search, where buyers can filter by any number of dimensions such as size, colour, material, or technical specifications, can be valuable to buyers. This is especially important given the size and scope of the typical B2B catalogue and what is stored in the product information management system. 

Businesses need to understand customer behaviours and what is likely to be important to them, ensuring this is accounted for in product information. Getting it right can drive big dividends with advanced search capabilities delivering up to double the conversion rate of basic search. 

Additionally, some search features are more specific to B2B buying behaviours. For example, two features that B2B buyers mentioned as being useful to them were the ability to bulk upload a set of stock keeping units (SKUs) into a search; and the ability to share the results of searches with colleagues to help with decision making and approval processes.

Let’s talk about price and inventory

Two key areas within search that demand a mindset shift for B2B sellers are pricing and inventory. Typical B2B sellers recoil from the notion of transparent pricing because B2B sales usually have more space for negotiation and are intensely competitive. However, buyers are far more likely to engage if they know what the starting price point is; it helps to raise businesses’ SEO rankings compared to more ‘mysteriously’ priced competitors. 

Similarly, pricing is closely linked to the second sticking point: real time inventory. Many B2B companies are reluctant to reveal their inventory status as it could reveal shortages or overstocking, however buyers not only want to know if and when vendors are able to deliver, they value of paying a premium in return for availability. 

Anyone who has spent time on Amazon knows that items eligible for Prime’s next day delivery are often more expensive, yet buyers are prepared to pay more for the certainty of their arrival. Not only that, but rich inventory information creates opportunities. Providing information about stock levels, prices, service options, product updates and new product launches are all opportunities to upsell or offer alternatives where a customer’s preferred choice is unavailable. 

Will good search kill face-to-face?

If frictionless online search and purchase can make life so easy, what will happen to good old-fashioned B2B relationships? Will they die? 

In a word, no. Nearly half of B2B buyers still want to visit a showroom or warehouse and over a third still like a traditional catalogue. However, search can complement both experiences. Most buyers will already have conducted online searches before visiting a showroom, and traditional catalogues can be enhanced with rich, real-time online experiences.  

The numbers tell us that B2B buyers are asking for a much better online search experience and there’s a real payoff for vendors that can make it happen. B2C sellers may reign supreme when it comes to developing robust and effective search strategies, but the time is now for B2B businesses to catch up.

by Kieron McCann

Strategy Director

 Wunderman Thompson Technology