Unless you’re with a large e-commerce com­pany or pub­lisher (think Ama­zon, eBay, or Yahoo!), it’s easy to over­look the inno­va­tion of site search. Most think it should sim­ply work as expected for those who use it.  Whether you call it onsite search, enter­prise search, or cor­po­rate search, right now is a great time to take a closer look at how it can sup­port SEO and audi­ence building.

As SEOs and mar­keters, we’re in the mid­dle of a shift from focus­ing on algo­rithms to pay­ing more atten­tion to users. Onsite search can help us opti­mize our online audience—both from search engines and from users on our sites. In this arti­cle, I’m going to talk about five great rea­sons to pump up your onsite search.

1. Bet­ter User Experience

We always hear that you can’t make every­one happy all the time. But if there’s any SEO tac­tic that approaches this ideal today, it’s cre­at­ing a great user expe­ri­ence (UX).

How many times have you left a web­site because the search box didn’t work very well? Maybe it was too slow, gave you “no results found,” or returned a hard-to-read list. If you’re like me, you feel kind of gypped in a sit­u­a­tion like this.

Research has shown that users pre­fer search boxes to site nav­i­ga­tion. After years of “just Googling it,” we’re all pro­grammed to enter search queries rather than nav­i­gate by click­ing links. We also expect answers to our queries, even if they’re not a per­fect match. More­over, we expect them to be fast.

With­out even think­ing about it, we’ve come to expect a cer­tain expe­ri­ence from all search sit­u­a­tions, whether they’re on Google or a sin­gle web­site. As mar­keters, we can use this knowl­edge to our benefit.

Here’s an exam­ple of a good site search improv­ing my own UX. If I want to dig into an SEO topic to learn what’s cur­rent, I often bypass Google. The Inter­net has matured enough that there are many great sites out there with solid track records of putting out con­sis­tent, reli­able, rel­e­vant con­tent. To the extent that sites like this have good onsite search, I’d rather go there than start with gen­eral search.

Search Engine Watch is one such site. I like know­ing that I can use their search box to return a list of great arti­cles on my sub­ject. Rep­utable authors put these out. They’re orga­nized by rel­e­vancy or recency. They’re clearly laid out, and they include snip­pets long enough to show me the basics of each arti­cle with­out click­ing on each one individually.

This adds up to a great user expe­ri­ence for me. My expec­ta­tions are met and my frus­tra­tion level is low. On the other hand, if I did this search in a major search engine, I’d have to cull through lots of blue links from unfa­mil­iar sources, unless of course I’m inter­ested in SEW only and use site:searchenginewatch.com, which is a Google short­cut to zero­ing in on con­tent on one domain. SEW’s onsite search ben­e­fits me, and it ben­e­fits SEW. Will I come back to the site after this kind of expe­ri­ence? You bet.

As you con­sider how to opti­mize your site search, think like a user. What do you expect from gen­eral search, and how you could recre­ate an expe­ri­ence that’s as good (or bet­ter) than that on your own site?

Some big com­pa­nies are now using seman­tic tech­nolo­gies for onsite search. In fact, seman­tic search was being used in this way before it went global with Google and Bing. How­ever, even if you aren’t in that league, you can cre­ate a great onsite search expe­ri­ence with a keyword-based pro­gram, or improve the one you have.

By refin­ing this ele­ment of your onsite UX, you can lower your site’s bounce rate. As peo­ple come to know and trust your site expe­ri­ence and con­tent, you can decrease your depen­dence on gen­eral search for traf­fic generation.

2. Improve Cus­tomer Sup­port and Retention

For cus­tomers who know exactly what they want, onsite search is crit­i­cal.  If I’m a cus­tomer inter­ested in how to use a spe­cific fea­ture, upgrade a prod­uct, return an item I’ve bought, or oth­er­wise get help, and I’m inclined to use search, then site search is THE way I’ll get there. So improv­ing onsite search can indi­rectly drive improve­ments in cus­tomer reten­tion and reduce cus­tomer ser­vice headaches by ensur­ing cus­tomers can find the con­tent that helps answer their ques­tions. Then, of course, the burden’s on the con­tent or cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive to ful­fill the customer’s ques­tion or concern.

3. Increase SEO

Improv­ing onsite search is also a great tool for post-Hummingbird, off­site SEO.

As I men­tioned above, UX has gained by leaps and bounds as a com­po­nent of SEO. In fact, Mar­i­anne Sweeny recently said UX is the new SEO in a blog post for SEM­Rush. Google has been incre­men­tally tweak­ing its approach to put more value on the UX, through Panda, Pen­guin, the “not pro­vided” shift, and more recently, Hum­ming­bird. Onsite search is by no means the only com­po­nent of onsite UX, but it’s a big one. In fact, web­site cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion is largely asso­ci­ated with over­all dig­i­tal user expe­ri­ence, global nav­i­ga­tion, and site search.

The thing I like about onsite search is it helps opti­mize for onsite traf­fic reten­tion as well as exter­nal search. By opti­miz­ing con­tent effec­tively, it should rank equally well in both inter­nal and exter­nal engines.

4. Sup­port Con­tent Strategy 

Onsite search offers great ben­e­fits for con­tent strat­egy as well —some­thing that’s pop­ping up in many SEO dis­cus­sions lately.

The key here is ana­lyt­ics. Doing reg­u­lar, robust analy­sis of your site traf­fic, search terms, and user behav­ior can inform strat­egy in many ways:

  • Iden­tify new or under­rep­re­sented top­ics for content.
  • Develop ways to edit, repub­lish, or refor­mat con­tent you already have.
  • Fig­ure out what ques­tions peo­ple want answered.
  • Find excel­lent con­tent key­words for paid search.

So another ele­ment of get­ting the most out of onsite search is mak­ing sure you have the right ana­lyt­ics in place.

5. Encour­age Social Sharing

In addi­tion to keep­ing peo­ple on your site and engaged with your con­tent, a fast and high-quality search func­tion can encour­age social sharing—another big plus for Google. It can give blog­gers, jour­nal­ists, and oth­ers a fast way to find your con­tent, much as I described above in my exam­ple about Search Engine Watch.

In essence, onsite search is a pow­er­ful tool for enhanc­ing the value of your con­tent because it makes the con­tent so much more usable—which also means share­able. As more enter­prises con­cep­tu­al­ize and man­age con­tent as a per­ma­nent busi­ness asset, the advan­tages of a robust and rel­e­vant onsite search func­tion will only grow.

Stel­lar onsite search has many ben­e­fits for users, search engines, influ­encers, and con­tent man­agers. It can help you become less depen­dence on exter­nal search. Don’t neglect this key aspect of user experience—especially now, when it mat­ters so much.

How is your com­pany using onsite search to boost user expe­ri­ence and exter­nal SEO?