We recently had the chance to discuss site search analytics with respected consultant and blogger Hurol Inan.
When you wrote your book ‘Search Analytics — A Guide to Analyzing and Optimizing Website Search Engines,’ what was the most important lesson you hoped website owners would learn?
I wanted to create awareness. I wanted to get people to realize that “site search analytics” (SSA) provides significant insights about the users of a website and their needs.
Before I wrote the book, I used to ask everyone if they did SSA. I have observed that not many website owners were doing it. I have encountered clients who were amazed when I have demonstrated to them how we could turn SSA insights into site improvements and marketing intelligence. So I thought I’d share my metrics and techniques with the analytics community in a book. While writing the book, I have identified a number of organizations who had formal SSA practices. I have also incorporated their experiences into the book as case studies.
Since you wrote the book back in 2006, what has changed in the discipline of search analytics?
There is evidence that more people are doing SSA. At least in Australia, we know this is the case from Bienalto’s Annual Web Analytics Surveys. SSA is consistently ranked in the top analytical techniques used.
I have also noticed that people are asking more questions on the subject in online forums.
Louis Rosenfeld [http://louisrosenfeld.com/presentations/seminars/site_search_analytics/] does SSA workshops and is writing a book.
Also, my book is still selling!
These all tell me there is interest on the subject which in turn would lead to development of useful analytical techniques and improved site search experiences.
You mention in the book that only 37 percent of site searches are successful; is that improving?
I don’t have current research on this. However, I am confident that the search success rate is higher for sites where site search is regarded as an important function of the website and there is a formal SSA practice in place.
On our client projects, we always look at ways to optimize the site search experience and improve the success rate. In addition to fine tuning the indexing rules, addressing content issues, we employ techniques such as facetted search. This allows users to refine the search results, decreasing the exit rates from the results page and increasing the selections.
What best practices do you see driving the improvement, if any?
For organizations that have no or little SSA capability, I believe the best practice is to start with the analytics. I am talking about analytics beyond reporting frequently searched keywords.
For example, through keyword theme analysis on a recent project, we discovered that about half of the searches on a client’s site were for specific brand names. A “long-tail” effect had been created due to the fact that the client carried a large number of brands, prompting a large number of individual keyword searches. The client had previously been unaware of these searches since they did not show up in the top keywords report. In this instance, I am certain that the high concentration of branded keyword searches was caused by navigational issues.
With SSA, the importance of search can be easily established by measuring the proportion of visitors performing searches on the site vs. those navigating directly to their desired pages. Then you can establish what drives visitors to the search. Is it because the site’s navigation fails or is it because your visitors simply favor search to browsing to find information? Finally, analysts can examine how well search results perform.
What is the number one thing website owners should do to improve conversion through search?
Improving the relevance of the search results set and the presenting search results in a way that aids the selection of the most relevant search should be the number one focus.
To do this requires a well-planned implementation of the site search tool (getting the search index right) and, once implemented, continuously monitoring and analyzing how it performs and making necessary adjustments.
Web analytics, as it relates to site search, has been primarily viewed as a tool for understanding search behavior. Do you see the intersection between analytics and site search evolving towards a more dynamic model, one where the site index is influenced by website behavior and vice versa?
When I wrote the book, I argued that SSA is a subset of Web Analytics. Both the context of the search (i.e. the circumstances that lead to search) and after-the-search behaviors should be studied.
I believe there are merits of a dynamic model. It makes sense to focus the search results to the context of the visit. For example, if someone is browsing through the customer support area of a website and conducts a search, it would make sense to display support-related content first in the search results. However, such practices require some caution because the user might have accidentally arrived from Google in a part of the site which is totally irrelevant to what he or she is looking for. Or a site’s navigation may take them somewhere they were not intending to go. Then search becomes an exit path instead of a path to relevant content. I would experiment with dynamic models that apply less rigid rules.
Another area that has merits is using search keywords as part of content targeting to display dynamic content.
What will be the biggest benefits of this evolution to both Web site owners and users?
The biggest benefit will be increased relevance of content and offers. Relevance means engagement, and the engagement leads to conversion and loyalty.