Your Search Function – Make Sure it Works

- March 18, 2008

Google Analytics SiteSearch OverviewI wanted to talk about something I’ve observed ever since Google Analytics introduced the SiteSearch section of reports into the program, back in November 2007. This is something that is happening across the board for most websites, regardless of industry, design, or type of content or language used.

First of all, let’s take a look at how people are finding your website. Most people will search for a keyword on Google or Yahoo, and will click on either your paid advertisement or your organic listing (and, of course, they are both prominently displayed on the first page of the search results ;).

With the exception of your branding keywords, if you ever look at any keyword report, you will see that most of the top keyword searches are either two or three words in length, and they are fairly normal in terms of refinement and how specific the search is. Chances are that these users were not looking for your website using search terms like “iphone” and “apple”, but they also didn’t use something like “green refurbished 8 gig apple ipod nano leather carrying case strap”. They probably were, for a lack of a better term, using some normal, middle of the road search term.

SiteSearch Navigation MenuNow, if you are fortunate enough to have both a Search Function on your website and Google Analytics, take a look at the “Search Terms” report, which is the second report from the top, inside of the “SiteSearch” section (which is located within the Content section). Are you surprised with what you are seeing? Yeah, so am I – I still find it tough to believe.

What I’m talking about is the fact that the top search terms people use on your website’s function are normally one-word terms, and they are very basic search terms at that. I’m talking extremely basic – words like “medical”, “label”, “mp3”, “windows”, “spine”, and so on. And, guess what? Some of these people are buying items from your online stores, or reaching the Goals that you have set-up for your profiles.

What does this all mean?
This is my theory. I believe when people land on a website and interact with a website’s search function, that they expect that the website knows exactly what to serve up to the visitor in its search results, despite their unrefined, raw search terms. I believe that people work under the assumption that once they are on a website, that the website should know exactly what the visitor (customer) is thinking right away, and that it should display exactly what the visitor wants to see, or they are back to Google to find another site to go to. I also believe that they feel Google is the place that needs that more-refined search term, so Google can understand what a visitor “is talking about”, whereas the website’s search function should already know what a visitor is talking about, and they shouldn’t have to produce some long-tail, exact search term.

Is this unfair to a website owner?
Oh yes, I feel that it is. But, you know what? That’s life. Remember, the visitor is always right. If they can’t find what they are looking for – or, what they expect to find – they’ll leave your site, and probably interact with another website’s search function, and will keep doing that until they are served up what they want to be served up.

So what do you recommend that I do?
I recommend that you make sure that your internal search function works extremely well, and produces clean, relevant search results at all times. Test it out frequently, and make sure it’s working without any bugs, or serving up any weird search results. Work closely with your programming team to make sure this happens. For example, if you sell plates, and if you search for “plates” on your search function, make sure plates appear right away in the search results! Also make sure that when a user clicks on a search result, that they are taken directly to the correct page, matching the search result listing, otherwise they may become frustrated with your site and leave right away.

…and if someone searches for something that I don’t sell, have, or promote?
Get creative. Don’t simply display a “no results found” message. Send them to a nice looking page that apologizes to the visitor that you do not carry that item or offer that service, and that also shows them the main products or services that you do offer. If there is an item that is constantly searched for that you do not carry, perhaps your visitors are asking you to add it to your website.



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