Using search marketing to place your web site in front of people searching for what you're selling is no longer a revolutionary concept. Everyone knows that search marketing is not only incredibly effective, but also an affordable means to drive conversions from hot prospects who are ready to buy.

But what about prospects who are, well, a bit lukewarm? Is there any value in using search marketing earlier in the buying cycle, before the searcher has their credit card in hand?

Several studies have shown that the answer to this question is a resounding "yes." This is true whether you're a B2C or B2B marketer, and whether you're selling paperback books or technical solutions with a price tag in the six figures.

On the consumer side, an Enquiro study found that the percentage of people who would use a search engine during the various stages of the buying cycle are:

  • 9% for Awareness
  • 68% for Consideration or Research
  • 43% for Decision
  • 28% for Purchase

Let's look at an example. A consumer who is ready to purchase might search for "sony ericsson s700i," which is a "brand" search term. But before he decides that's the type of cell phone he wants, he might search for a "generic" search term, such as "mp3 player cell phone." This would be during the consideration or research phase.

comScore found similar results in research done across several consumer categories. They found that while consumers using branded search terms were roughly 30% more likely to purchase online during that session as compared to searchers using generic terms, generic terms resulted in the greatest number of total purchases -- over 60%. This is simply because many more people use generic terms. A majority of searchers never use brand terms; instead, they rely only on generic terms.

What is the key takeaway for B2C marketers? You need to be visible on search engines throughout your customers' buying cycle. If you're only found when they're ready to purchase – if you're only visible on brand search terms -- you are probably missing opportunities.

Let's turn our attention to business-to-business marketers. Do the same rules apply here? Absolutely. Not only did Enquiro find that 95% of corporate purchasing agents use the web to research products and services before selection, but they also found that 64% said a search engine would be the first place they'd turn early in the buying cycle.

This is a typical buying cycle for a business buyer:

  • Needs identification (I have a problem – is there a solution available?)
  • Requirement specification (What type of solution best fits my problem?)
  • Research & evaluation (Which brand of solution best fits my problem?)
  • Selection (Where will I buy the brand that I've chosen?)

The buying process can be more complex on the business side since there's often more than one person involved in the decision. Savvy marketers will not only try to hit each stage of the buying cycle, but they'll also try to reach each person involved in the purchasing decision.

Often, the person feeling the pain in the organization is not the ultimate decision-maker. However, this person is important because he is the one who identifies the problem, researches solutions, and usually "sells in" the chosen provider or brand to the ultimate decision-maker. This influencer's searching behavior will most likely be quite a bit more in-depth than the decision-maker's, spanning a lengthier period of time throughout the process.

The decision-maker may only run a few quick searches on the chosen provider's company or brand name in order to do a credibility check. And, since 55% of web users (business or consumer) expect to find top brands in the few top search engine results, you'd better ensure that you're easily found by the decision-maker who's performing her due diligence.

What is the key takeaway for B2B marketers? Like B2C marketers, you need to be visible on search engines throughout your customers' buying cycle. There is also an additional level of complexity in that you must be found easily by different people involved in the buying process, each of whom may be searching with different agendas.

Finally, let's talk timing. On the consumer side, comScore found that only 15% of people made a purchase online in the same session in which they began a search. This means that 85% of purchases occurred later, with nearly 40% of all purchases occurring between five and 12 weeks after the first search was conducted.

On the business side, Enquiro found, not surprisingly, that the budget for the particular item affected the length of time between the search and the purchase date. More than 80% of items with a price tag of less than $500 were bought within a month of the search date. However, 89% of items with a price tag of more than $50,000 took place between one and 12 months after the initial search date.

What is the key takeaway for all marketers? As wonderful as web analytics software can be – especially the packages that can trace online conversions back to their search engine sources – their data will be incomplete due to the lag time in the buying cycle. Yes, set your cookies with as long an expiration date as you can, but recognize that you're getting more sales from search engines than your software is able to measure.

One last point is worth mentioning. Both consumer and business buyers doing online research early in the buying cycle will, ideally, learn about your brand during this process. Some of them will come back later to the search engines and search for your specific brand in order to determine where to buy. So over time, your presence on generic search terms will increase the number of searches run on brand search terms. Your search marketing campaign will, in effect, create brand awareness. With the proper analytics tools in place, you can measure this aspect of brand awareness and watch it grow along with your sales.


  • Enquiro, "Inside the Mind of the Searcher," 2004
  • Enquiro and MarketingSherpa, "The Role of Search in Business to Business Buying Decisions," 2004
  • iProspect survey, 2002
  • comScore study released December 13, 2004

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

April 19, 2006

Stacy Williams, search engine marketing specialist, is founder and President of Prominent Placement, Inc. With an extensive background in Internet marketing, Stacy offers her clients cutting edge solutions that are always rooted in sound marketing strategy. A member of the Technology Alliance of Georgia and the Atlanta Interactive Marketing Association, Stacy is a frequent lecturer on search engine optimization and Internet marketing topics.

Search Engine Guide > Stacy Williams > Leveraging Search Marketing Throughout the Buying Cycle