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How Do B2B Buyers Search?

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For business to business (B2B) buyers, search engines are the primary research source, and one of the top influencers on purchasing decisions, according to the latest research from Enquiro Search Solutions.

In its Business to Business Survey 2007, Enquiro set out to update its 2004 B2B study and examine how people research B2B buying decisions online.

The study found that general search engines topped the list of research sources throughout the purchase cycle, from awareness, through research, negotiation and purchase phases. However, many buyers move toward vertical search engines as they get closer to making a buying decision.

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In the awareness phase, 65.3 percent of users said they would start their research with a general search engine. That number dropped to 51.8 percent in the research phase, 42.1 percent in the negotiation phase, and 42.6 percent in the purchase phase.

The study found that in the researching phase, a purchaser is five times more likely to turn to a generic search engine for information than a B2B search engine. As purchasers enter the later research phase and start compiling information to begin the actual negotiation, many rely on B2B vertical search engines, such as Business.com, KnowledgeStorm, or Thomasnet, to help gather the detailed information they require. B2B search engines were the first choice of 22.1 percent of respondents in the negotiation phase, and 18 percent of respondents in the purchase phase.

Influences on B2B Buyers

The two factors that remain the most influential to buyers are a vendor's Web site and a word-of-mouth recommendation by a colleague. Right behind those two factors come search engines and distributors' Web sites. When you consider that another 27 percent of buyers will find a vendor's site via a search engine, and that a recommendation from a colleague or other offline influence will generally lead a buyer to a search engine, the importance of cultivating a strong presence in relevant search results becomes even more clear to B2B vendors.

And when buyers in the study were talking about using a general search engine, they usually meant Google. A whopping 77 percent of respondents prefer Google, compared to 14 percent who chose Yahoo, 7 percent who chose Microsoft, and 2 percent who chose another engine.

"This reinforces for B2B marketers the importance of having a presence on general search engines, especially a presence on Google," said Gord Hotchkiss, Enquiro's CEO and president.

What are B2B Buyers Searching For?

The study also revealed some things that B2B searchers are looking for in a Web site once they've found it. In all cases, B2B purchasers preferred to access information in a text format that was downloadable and portable.

"For B2B buyers, simpler is better," Hotchkiss said. "They want vendors to provide clear information, that's easy to get to and can be easily transferred within the buying organization."

The reason for that is simple, Hotchkiss said: The person doing the searching is not usually the only person involved in making the final decision, and in fact may not be involved in the decision at all. The researcher may be tasked with finding the relevant pricing information, technical specs, customer service and support data, which they in turn will need to present to the decision makers. Buyers found rich media, video and podcasts less important.

It's also important for vendors to consider that fact when building landing pages, Hotchkiss said. If most of the B2B visitors from a general search engine are coming to a site to do research, they are not going to respond to a call to action that urges them to "buy now," he said.

Instead, a vendor should use that knowledge to provide researchers with the opportunity to dig down into the details of their products, and make it easy for them to find what they need to move on to the next phase of the buying cycle, with the vendor still in their consideration set, he said.

B2B and Consumer Interaction with SERPs is Similar

One thing that remains the same between B2B and consumer search is the user interaction with the search results page. Enquiro has performed two previous consumer-focused studies of click throughs by position, and the results of those studies are consistent with this study.

In the 2006 consumer study, for example, the top four organic listings captured 54.9 percent of all the click throughs, with the number one organic result capturing 26.4 percent. In the sponsored listings, the top pay-per-click ad captured 8.7 percent of click throughs, more than twice those of the number two ad at 3.6 percent.

In this B2B study, the top four organic listings captured 52.6 percent of all the click throughs, with the number one organic result capturing 27.1 percent. In the sponsored listings, the top pay-per-click ad captured 7.4 percent of click throughs, which again was more than twice those of the number two ad at 3.4 percent.

"From study to study, we're seeing remarkably similar results," Hotchkiss said.

Search Behavior Varies by Buyers' Roles

Four major roles were identified for the survey: the economic buyer, the technical buyer, the user buyer and the coach buyer. The economic buyer is the person who ultimately makes the buying decisions and signs the check. The technical buyer is a person within an organization who is tasked with ensuring that whatever solution that is purchased needs the technical requirements of the company. The user buyer is the person on the front lines who will actually use the solution or product purchased. The coach buyer is an internal champion who helps move the sales process along and usually has a vested interest in the purchase of the solution.

The question of variances by role of the searcher will be answered later this year. Enquiro plans to release separate findings for the top three types of buyers in the survey, the economic buyer, technical buyer, and user buyer.

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