From an e-commerce perspective, what’s the difference between a business customer and a consumer? The former is a buyer and the latter is a shopper, and that distinction makes site search a critical function for business-to-business companies, says Harley Thomas, senior director of corporate and digital marketing for ibSupply.com.

“In B2B good site search provides a solid foundation for e-commerce success. The stakes in site search are a lot higher in B2B,” Thomas says, because buyers are looking for products as part of their job and need to find what they seek quickly. “A bad site search experience may not dissuade a B2C shopper, especially if the company has a really strong brand, but for B2B companies like ours it’s a catastrophe. If we fail to provide a hassle-free experience for our online buyers they’ll jump to a competitor’s site or they’ll just go somewhere else offline.”

Thomas speaks from experience. Until recently site search at ibSupply.com could be challenging for customers of the e-commerce site. IbSupply.com sells to both businesses and consumers and is operated by ibMilwaukee, a manufacturer and distributor of office supplies, furniture, tools and promotional products, whose workforce is dominated by legally blind or visually impaired employees. In addition to ibSupply.com, ibMilwaukee has 13 stores around the country at military bases and government buildings. Its customer base includes many government and military buyers.

In May ibSupply.com rolled out new site search technology from Unbxd, which refined site search to such an extent that, since May, revenue attributed to site search increased 40%, Thomas told online attendees of a B2BecNews webinar last week.

Upgrading site search had other benefits for ibSupply.com, including a 35% lift in revenue per search session, a 22% increase in search conversion rate and an 11% increase in average order value, Thomas says. But the journey followed a winding road.

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The company spent three years trying to make site search work internally using the open-source Solr site search application. Thomas says it wasn’t connecting customers to products very well so ibSupply hired a Solr expert. The developer made great progress—until he was hired away by Amazon.com Inc. “Thatleft us back where we were,” he says. “The question was: do we hire someone or outsource?”

Good fortune intervened when Thomas and his chief marketing officer attended the eTail West trade show in February. There they attended a presentation by Monal Patel, senior vice president at Unbxd, and concluded that Unbxd’s technology was a good fit for ibSupply.com, Thomas says. IbSupply.com followed up with Unbxd and several other site search technology vendors and decided on Unbxd in May. Five weeks later the new site search technology was in place, Thomas says.

“A couple of their engineers came here to work with our two developers. Our director of e-commerce was involved—we had everyone on it,” Thomas says.

Thomas declined to disclose ibSupply’s cost for the new technology, but noted the estimates from multiple vendors ranged from $1,500 to $2,000 per month up to $20,000 per month. The quotes were based on number of transactions.

IbSupply’s budget for site search technology was based on the costs of its former Solr consultant, and having the same budgeted amount helped him sell the project to upper management, he says.

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“We needed a solution that not only addresses our basic site search needs, such as relevancy and error tolerance, but that also works well with the unique purchasing behavior of our B2B buyers,” Thomas says.

IbSupply.com’s repeat buyers often search for products by their part numbers to reorder the same set of products. In some cases they search for a partial part number where the part number may have a hyphen in it, or there can be more than one part number for the same product or a variant, Thomas says. “Handling part number searches is problematic for standard search platforms.”

The Unbxd technology also reduces the repeat buyer’s path to purchase because a search for a partial part number triggers an auto-complete function to display related parts and products. It displays a list that includes any user rating, price, inventory status and quantity, along with an add-to-cart button, all without drilling down to an individual product page.

Site search also plays a crucial role in engaging potential buyers on B2B sites, says Patel, who participated in the webinar. He cited a recent survey of businesses that revealed more than83% of buyers prefer researching and comparing products on seller’s websites. Google came in second as a preferred source of product information. “That is a great opportunity for B2B sites to convert window shoppers—or researchers—into buyers,” he says. They survey was completed by Acquity Group, a part of Accenture Interactive.

Sign up for a free subscription to B2BecNews, a twice-weekly newsletter that covers technology and business trends in the growing B2B e-commerce industry. B2BecNews is published by Vertical Web Media LLC, which also publishes the monthly business magazine Internet Retailer. Follow Bill Briggs on Twitter @BBriggsB2B.

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