In Search of B2B Landmarks

First published September 27, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week (actually, right about the time you’ll be reading this column) I’ll be talking to the American Business Media Publishers Summit in Chicago about online opportunities, from a user’s perspective. As I was getting ready for the address, I realized there’s a substantial piece of the B to B market that’s missing online. I call it a market enabler.

Looking for Landmarks

Think of our typical progression when we begin researching something online. If it’s new territory, the first thing we need to do is to find a landmark to navigate from. From that landmark we tend to navigate out from it. This is true both in the online and real world. Think of Google as everybody’s favorite landmark. It’s the starting point of nearly all our online navigation, because we know we can always get back to it if we’re lost. In fact, it becomes the vehicle of our online navigation in almost all cases. The only time we deviate from it is if we have enough familiarity with a certain section of the online landscape that we can find other online landmarks without it. For example, if I’m planning a trip somewhere, I usually don’t start at Google. I either start at one of the travel tools I have bookmarked (Farecompare.com, Kayak, Sidestep) or at my favorite travel community, Tripadvisor.com. I’ve been down this path before, so I’ve memorized other familiar landmarks. Otherwise, I always start at Google.

But there are some things we look for in our landmarks. We want them to be recognizable. We want them to be authoritative. We want them to be comprehensive. And usually, we want them to be relatively agnostic. We don’t want to be pushed in any particular direction. We want to choose our own paths. We want a neutral marketplace that allows us to compile our own consideration set, not have it built for us.

Making Life Easier

It also helps if our landmarks incorporate some strong navigational and comparison functionality. One of the best things about the travel sites and tools I’ve mentioned is their sophisticated search and filtering capabilities. They beat Google at this particular game. They’re a more useful landmark to navigate from within. And increasingly, they’re incorporating authentic community dialogue and reviews with the search functionality. I can search, sort and qualify, all in one place. They make the difficult job of planning a trip easier. They’re market enablers, because they allow us to compare alternatives more effectively. If we look at the two best examples of market enablers, eBay and Amazon, they share all of the above characteristics.

So, let’s return to the B to B marketplace. In our B to B survey, we found that almost everyone starts with Google, because most of the time when we research B to B purchases, we’re starting in unfamiliar territory. We have no landmarks. And while we usually end up going fairly quickly to vendor sites, the survey found a strong desire to find an unbiased landmark as the market’s middle ground. Yet, no enablers have strongly established themselves in this position. There is no eBay or Amazon, or even a TripAdvisor, of B to B. There are vertical engines, including Business.com, Knowledgestorm, KellySearch, ThomasNet and others, but none have dominated the landscape to this point.

Sorting through the Haystack

In a recent B to B panel I moderated, consultant Karen Breen Vogel mentioned that these vertical properties do restrict the scope of the search, so rather than looking for a needle in a haystack, you’re looking for a needle in a needlestack. While this is true, it can still be a pretty painful process if you’re looking for the right needle. The problem is that the B 2 B marketplace is vast and fragmented. Also, there are no obvious affiliation or revenue opportunities, as there are in the travel business. There isn’t an obvious money trail to follow in the B to B world to make enabling the marketplace a potentially lucrative proposition. Most of the players have morphed over from being directory publishers in the offline world, and are still following the paid listing model. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lend itself to the neutral marketplace favored by researching buyers.

There are few purchase processes that are more difficult or taxing than a complicated B to B one. Sorting out potential vendors can be a long, tedious and frustrating process. First of all, there’s no emotional investment. This isn’t planning a vacation. This is your job. Secondly, the risk level is extremely high. Screw up, and your job may evaporate. While the potential to make money may be obscured by the challenges, the buyer’s need is painfully obvious. And I can’t help thinking, if eBay could do it, given the immense diversity of its marketplace, there must be a way.

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