As the amount of content on the Internet has grown beyond all reasonable measure, search has become the critical tool for finding information across the myriad of sites available today. Has your site also grown beyond its bounds? If so, site search is the best way to make your content discoverable.
Hopefully if your site is beyond 50 pages, you already have a site search. But how effective is it? Have you ever checked? Here are a few tips of places to start to learn from how visitors are using your site search.
Make sure your site search provides useful statistics.
If you are using a built-in search that came with your CMS or server software, you might not be able to see any details on what visitors are doing, aside from what search terms they are using. Other key data to know are top queries, queries with no results, and queries with no clicks. The best approach is a combination of data from the site search engine itself and from your analytics solution. Both tools can tell you top queries and click-through rates, but a good site search engine can tell you what searches returned no results, and your analytics tool can tell you exit rates, time after search, etc.
Where are searches hitting a dead end?
The best way to support a visitor in his quest to find content on your site is to make sure they never hit a dead end. This can happen in two main ways: entering a search that returns no results and getting search results that aren’t relevant.
Using two of the stats mentioned above, you can track and react to this situation. Queries with no results will show you the keywords that were entered and came back with no content at all. The most common case of this is a misspelled term in the search. The quick remedy to this is to either establish a misspellings/synonyms list, if your engine supports it. Otherwise, you can add the misspelled keyword into the meta tags on the page itself.
In searches with no click-throughs, your visitor did a search that returned results, but they weren’t relevant enough to get a click. Correcting this can be a little trickier. You need to figure out what the visitor was probably looking for and then adjust page ranking to make more relevant pages come up higher in the results. The best way to do this is with updated keywords and content, rather than tweaking your search engine, because making content updates helps external SEO and internal site search results.
Never leave a visitor hanging
In the cases where a search returns no links, be sure to give your visitor options how to find the content they need. As a minimum first step, include a link to the contact form. Imagine you are at Home Depot looking for a bolt to finish a project. You did a search (looking up and down the aisle) and now you are stuck. You push the contact us (“special assistance needed”) button to get help. The best retailers have adopted this customer friendly system, why shouldn’t you do the same.
Secondarily, on the blank results page, include tips about how to do a better search and provide links to a site map or product specific searches, if those exist. Since you don’t know what the user was looking for while they were searching, these recommendations have to be fairly generic and open ended.
Reviewing site search data as part of your regular analytics process will greatly improve your visitor experience .
[This is a reprint/update of a previous post I wrote years ago, but somehow the more things change, the more they stay the same!]