Search engine optimization (SEO), as technical as it sounds, is critical for a distributor to be found online. In fact, a search engine like Google is where most customers are starting their searches for products, services, or suppliers, according to our ongoing survey of more than 10,000 end users across distribution segments.

When you optimize your website for specific keywords or phrases, like “Trane,” “heating units,” or “commercial air conditioner repair in St. Louis,” you increase the chance the right prospect will land on your website and call you instead of the competition.

More than 70 percent of distributors’ customers frequently or very frequently shop by plugging a keyword or search term into Google or other search engines. Younger buyers are even more likely to shop online using search. When asked about how they expect to shop over the next couple of years, nearly half of the end users we surveyed indicated they’d somewhat or much more frequently use a search engine.

When you pull out the data from just the HVACR segment, this trend holds true. And given the strong deployment of e-commerce in HVACR markets (28 percent of distributors with revenues of more than $10 million have e-commerce, and that number is growing each year), the importance of search will continue to grow.

The Race Is On

While the largest distributors have accelerated their focus on SEO, ranking higher and for more keywords than the competition, their smaller competitors are falling farther and farther behind. And in fact, even some of the largest distributors in the HVACR space are not dedicating the resources they need to get ahead in the SEO arms race. There will be clear winners and losers, and the results will be reflected in distributors’ top lines.

In our research, the number of keywords that leading HVACR distributors now rank for in search results has more than doubled over the past two years, indicating a growing focus on search as a marketing channel. And like a Starbucks on every corner, distribution’s goliaths appear far more frequently than the competition in first-page search results. The goliaths rank in search for seven times more keywords than their next largest competitors. While distributors will most likely not be able to catch up with these behemoths, they can catch other leaders.

Number of Keywords Leading HVACR Distributors Rank for in Online Searches

Data source: SEMrush | Analysis by: Real Results Marketing

The search data, available through tools like SEMrush, show that top HVACR distributors’ search marketing efforts are proceeding at different rates. Some are more mature in their search efforts than others. While most of the largest distributors in the market ranked for a comparable number of search terms in late 2016 (see our analysis in the graphic to the right), Distributor 1 has tripled the keywords it appears in search results for, while Distributor 5 has plateaued.

This is in part due to their approach to search. Those that fall toward the bottom of the graph tend to rank high for corporate search terms, like their company name and location, but lower for product search terms, like “air conditioner” or brand names. Improving organic search for product marketing is the low-hanging fruit for most distributors. If you’re only showing up in search results for fewer than 100 keywords, you’re probably only focused on corporate search terms. Distributors that don’t want to be left behind in the search arms race need to focus on brand and product category.

The good news is that distributors are seeing the value of search marketing and investing accordingly. In a 2017 survey of distributors, we found that search overcame email in importance to distributors for marketing. High performers with e-commerce emphasized search optimization, with 75 percent of them rating it as “very important” to their success. Just 40 percent of low performers do search optimization daily or weekly.

What to Do Next

If you don’t appear on the first page of search results, the chances a prospect will find you are next to nothing. About 90 percent of Google traffic comes from page-one placement in search results. Conversely, less than 10 percent of searchers click on the second page of search results. So, how can distributors compete? It doesn’t take much to get into the race. There are firms that can help you do this, or you can plan to hire a part- or full-time search marketing expert to move your company forward.

Here are some tips for helping your prospects land on your website instead of the competition’s:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all people — If you focus your efforts on the same terms that distribution’s goliaths are focused on, you’ll get crushed. What does your company do best? Are you the only dealer of a specific brand in your local market? Do you offer same-day delivery for certain products to the job site? What about local repair services? Where you focus your efforts in search indicates where you focus in your business. When we examined search data for the largest HVACR distributors, we found some ranked high for certain brands, products, and services and not at all for others. Search data could almost be a proxy for market share by brand for distributors. Think about what you’re known for and why your customers do business with you and start there. Some keyword research tools online will also show you how well your direct competition ranks for those words; consider that when determining where to focus.
  • Because most distributors have branches, local SEO will be key in the race to be found online — Take advantage of listings on free services like Google Business and Bing Places, and make sure your name, address, and phone number are consistent across your online mentions.
  • Develop a keyword strategy to rank higher in Google — Several tools exist to help make this job easier. Start with Google’s free Keyword Planner, which is part of AdWords, or sign up for a service like SEMrush. There are lots of nuances with keywords, which are beyond the scope of this article.
  • High-quality product content is often referred to as the Holy Grail of SEO for distributors — But in distribution, many companies have access to the same product content. Differentiate your site from others, so search engines like Google see that you’re different. When possible, tweak the content that appears on your website’s product pages to pertain to your specific customer base. Start with the top 100 products and optimize and/or add to the content with relevant and useful data.
  • Other content, such as blogs and application information, is also important to being found online — But don’t just stuff words on a page. You’ll be downgraded in search results if you do that. Instead, write like your customer is sitting in front of you, and address their pain points. Use natural language.
  • Work with third-party experts — This allows you to obtain better results for paid search marketing and focus on new customers rather than existing customers with your efforts.
  • Gain backlinks whenever possible — A backlink is a fancy way of saying another website is linking to your website. Google uses backlinks as an important indicator for a site’s popularity and authority. (But don’t buy into websites that offer you backlinks that aren’t relevant to your website. Google knows. Focus on partnering with suppliers first and get listed in local business directories online.)

It’s only going to get more difficult to stand out in search results online. But the good news is that if you provide solid, relevant, and useful information to your customers and prospects, and update it frequently, there is a higher probability of search engines looking on your site favorably.