Why B-to-B E-Commerce Demands its Own Brand of Search
Businesses routinely have to buy everything from office supplies to electronic parts to laboratory consumables from distributors, manufacturers and aggregators. Increasingly, these transactions are taking place online. The business is evolving, but the tools required to support such businesses haven't kept pace.
Historically, business-to-business (B-to-B) e-commerce sites have used search engines developed for the business-to-consumer (B-to-C) environment to serve their search needs. As B-to-B e-commerce evolved, however, the industry realized the B-to-C search tools simply weren’t capable of handling the demand. Exacerbating the problem, B-to-B sellers also determined their search engine users rely far more on certain search engine capabilities (e.g., order history) than B-to-C users.
B-to-C tools simply weren't equipped to service B-to-B clients. Though both users are in the business of selling, the difference in end buyers (B vs. C) calls for two separate search solutions.
Understanding the Two Bs
Before we dive into how to fix e-commerce search for B-to-B, I want to talk about how the two Bs interact in this equation. When a B-to-B e-commerce site serves another business, it often cements this relationship with a contract. Contracts allow sites to differentiate the following for each business:
- the categories of products offered to the business;
- the availability of stock keeping units (SKUs) within a category;
- the internal description, name or even SKU number for certain products; and
- the SKUs available to different locations and regions, different departments and different buyers within the company.
Finally, B-to-B search allows sites to vary the attributes associated with a SKU. For example, the price of a SKU available to a large business may be different than the price of the same SKU available to a smaller business.
How Much is it Really?
The result of this contract is tantamount to a specialized product catalog offered by the e-commerce site to the business. A B-to-B e-commerce site could easily be providing this service for hundreds of thousands of businesses, each with its own unique contract, meaning the search engine would have to manage hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of indices. These indices include all of the specifications that can vary per contract. Most off-the-shelf search engines built for the B-to-C e-commerce space cannot manage a large number of indices without severe degradation in indexing or search performance.
Custom(er) is Key
Adding to the complexity is the fact that a majority of B-to-B e-commerce transactions originate from searches on the business’s previous order history. Businesses reorder more than individual consumers because B-to-B purchasers are responsible for replenishing supplies and buying for multiple end users.
A typical purchaser at a business tends to reorder the same SKUs or new models of previously ordered SKUs. Thus the B-to-B e-commerce site’s search needs to automatically promote items previously ordered by a business, as well as allow searches within the order history. And, of course, this history will vary for each of the hundreds of thousands of businesses using the search engine.
With a B-to-C off-the-shelf engine, the desired SKU is often buried beneath other, less pertinent SKUs, preventing the purchaser from moving quickly through his or her order list for the month or quarter. Only a B-to-B solution has the capacity for B-to-B search.
The A+ Solution for B-to-B E-Commerce
Clearly, a search engine serving B-to-B e-commerce sites and mobile apps needs to have the technological underpinnings to support a large number of indices in a scalable manner. It also needs to enable search results influenced by the purchase history of a B-to-B customer.
These B-to-B search requirements are over and above the features that B-to-C e-commerce search engines typically possess. B-to-B e-commerce site owners should carefully consider recent advances in enterprise-specific handling by search engines before selecting a search provider.
Srinivasan Seshadri is the CEO of Zettata, an enterprise-grade search software provider.