When it comes to B2B search marketing, what’s the best strategy—Organic search engine optimization or pay-per-click search advertising? In large part, it depends on what you’re selling, your budget, your company’s investment philosophy, and searchers’ actual behavior.
Packaged goods versus the complex sale
There tend to be two types of B2B purchases. Those easily defined in terms of the product and corresponding price, and those that require specification of some sort. The latter tend to be less standardized, and pricing can be very dependent on numerous factors, including the nature of the buyer (e.g., creditworthiness, purchase volume).
If you’re trying to sell search within your organization, and if you’re selling what amount to B2B packaged goods, pay-per-click search marketing can be the path of least resistance. Typically, B2B “packaged goods” can be easily compared to one another in terms of features and benefits. Accordingly, there is less purchase research, and the buying cycle is much shorter. In today’s ROI-driven world, corporate management tends to be much more tolerant of PPC expenditures when revenue can be quickly and easily tied to it. The results are quick, and the investment is typically low.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to sell the idea of search marketing and your company’s products have long lead times and require substantial purchase research and specification, you may find management more accepting of making a much larger investment in SEO. Corporate management tends to view this type of investment as long-term brand building. Surprisingly, you’ll often find it much easier to sell the idea of spending even tens of thousands of dollars for SEO than spending even a few hundred to even try PPC.
Level of risk associated with the purchase
It’s been our experience in working with B2B clients for more than twenty years that risk plays a huge role in the purchase decision process. The larger the potential purchase and the more the wrong purchase decision can potentially negatively affect the business, the more stringent the research and analysis of the purchase alternatives. And that research and analysis includes not only the product or service being sought, but also the company behind it.
Accordingly, potential B2B buyers with much at stake look for industry leaders with proven track records, strong reputations, and focused expertise. These factors can often outweigh the best features and benefits. Keep in mind those who influence large purchases aren’t just making a decision that can affect the company, they’re making a decision that can affect their career. Years ago the adage was, “nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.” That mentality is still at work today.
So what does this have to do with SEO versus PPC? More and more, searchers are becoming very savvy with respect to the anatomy of the search engine results page. They know that there are two types of results: natural results and the ads. They know that if they’re doing purchase research or just looking for information, the organic results will often yield the most diverse and promising results. They tend to view the sponsored links as “people trying to sell me something.” (This distinction isn’t necessarily bad; it all depends on what the searcher is trying to accomplish.)
Searchers know that anyone can buy an ad with a high ranking, but it’s much harder to achieve ubiquitous high-ranking organic results for a wide variety of appropriate search terms. Sure, there are spammers in the high-ranking organic results, but the search engines are getting better and better at giving searchers highly relevant results. Accordingly, searchers ascribe some level of authority to high-ranking organic results.
A one-page article in a trade magazine has been shown to be several times more effective than a one-page ad. That’s because the mere coverage of the editorial story is inferred to be, to some extent, an endorsement by the magazine. At least the subject matter of the article has been vetted and reviewed by a disinterested third party-and this gives the editorial story more credibility than a similar size ad. So too with the organic search results. To some extent, searchers put faith in the search engines (at least until click-through) to find the most appropriate search results. Therefore, at least initially, searchers also ascribe more authority to high-ranking organic results.
The higher the level of risk associated with the purchase of your product, the more you’ll want to focus on achieving strong organic search results. Ubiquitous high-ranking results can create the perception of industry leadership, regardless of your actual standing. And perceptions of leadership can get you included in the buyer’s consideration set.
Where B2B searchers click
Regardless of what your search marketing investment is, to spend it wisely, it’s important to remember exactly where B2B searchers tend to look and what they tend to click on.
While there isn’t a lot of research regarding B2B search engine marketing, the most recent B2B study by Enquiro showed that nearly 75 percent of B2B searchers clicked on an organic search result first. In terms of paid ads, 12 percent clicked on top-sponsored links first, about 7 percent clicked on side-sponsored links first. There are a couple of lessons in the research. First, if you want click-through from PPC, spend the money to rank well. Boosting your budget slightly can yield significantly higher returns. Make sure you show up in the top-sponsored links or at the top of the side-sponsored links. Second, if you’re willing to make the longer-term investment in SEO, the payback, in terms of click-through, is likely there.
The right blend
Obviously, the choice of PPC or SEO isn’t mutually exclusive; you can do both, and in many cases you should. Even if you know that SEO will yield more click-through, getting high-ranking results can take time. Use paid search to fill in the gaps where organic results are weak.