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How You Can Put Google Analytics Site Search to Work for You

by Tim Leighton-Boyce

In part one of this series I explained why site search reports are so valuable. These reports contain the words actually typed by your visitors, so they give you valuable insight into the intentions, needs and language of your market.
Illustration showing stick men lifting chart column
The site search reports do a lot of the heavy lifting for you: they give you lists of words you should be adding to your site and they show you where you should put them. The search terms also provide quantifiable information about the level of interest in new products and items which have been discontinued too early.

You can use this information to

  • Attract people to your site by using the words they use themselves
  • Make it easier for them to find what they want when they’re on the site
  • Gain valuable insight into demand for new products and other market intelligence

In this post I’ll explain the specifics of how to do all that.

This post is part two of a series:

  1. Previous Post: Why Site Search is So Important
  2. This Post: How To Use Site Search Reports in Google Analytics
  3. Coming up: Extras

I’ll use Google Analytics for my example because it is widely used and because its Site Search reports work very well in this context.

The two reports which are most useful are “Site Search: Search Terms” and “Site Search: Start Pages”.

I recommend that you begin with this report because it gives you an overview of what visitors are searching for on your site. When you’re new to this process, the biggest gains will probably be found here.

Screen grab: where to find Google Analytics Site Search Terms Report

The moment you look at this report you may instantly see some surprising and useful information.

Examples of things to watch out for include:

  • Terms which are different words from the ones which you use on the site
  • Words which are on the site, but people are using search to find them
  • Searches for new products which you don’t actually stock (but might)
  • Searches for discontinued items

In the next sections I’ll show you some of the things you can do with the clues you’ve found.

Your Customers Use Different Words

It’s very common for manufacturers and retailers to use industry terms and jargon which are very different from the language used by shoppers in our stores or on our web sites. Those industry concepts affect our classification of products and the category navigation of our sites.

  • We design our sites to suit industry insiders, not the people using the site
  • But on-site search reports teach us the words our visitors actually use

External search reports can do this too, but to a more limited extent — they only show the keywords which did result in a visit to the site. Which means that the relevant words probably are already on the site. These reports don’t give you information on those other words, the ones people are using which are not the ones on your site and which are not bringing visitors. Those potential customers don’t even get to your site. (By the way don’t forget: Google Insights for Search can provide some very useful on information on such phrases and the volume of people who’re searching for them.)

The fix for this is obvious but it may be easier said than done.

You need to change the language used on the site to match the words your customers use. Those trigger words are the ones they are scanning for when trying to find what they want to buy. These search clues may turn out to be the tip of an iceberg of lost sales.

Many other people may have scanned for those words and decided that you don’t stock what they want. Search is the navigation method of last resort: those who actually searched were giving you one last chance. Other people would have gone back to their Google results and on to your rivals.

  • Changing the language in your product copy may be hard in between catalogues or seasons. But you need to do it
  • Changing the language used for categorisation and navigation is probably even more of an upheaval. But you need to do it

As ever, the secret is to test. Choose the search term with the highest volume of searches. If possible configure a GA goal to match the URI of the relevant destination pages (regular expressions make it possible to match several different pages). This way you can establish a benchmark conversion rate for this micro-conversion.

Make the change: add these words to your navigation, product names and description as appropriate. Then see if the volume of search for that term goes down and, more to the point, the traffic to the relevant pages via navigation goes up. Keep an eye on your organic search traffic as well. Since you’ve added a popular search term to your navigation structure, as well as including it in the copy, you should pick up some extra external search benefit as well. This could well start to form a virtuous circle, attracting more people who will see the trigger words prominently on the site and will be more likely to buy.

Illustration: add the right words, more people will buy and search engines will send more people

Your Site Navigation and Copy Use The Same Words, So Why Do People Search?

If you spot a large volume of searches using words which are the same ones as you use on the site, you need to find out why people are needing to search for them.

By ‘large volume’ I mean anything which stands out as having an unusual share of search when compared to the spread of other terms in the report, or compared to your expectations of the market. You can use the GA ‘performance view’ of the data table if you would like some percentages calculated for you — but it’s usually enough to eyeball the standard table to spot any interesting cases.

Next you need to find out where those searches were taking place. Click on the search word to drill down to next level of detail. The default view will show the ‘Destination Page’ as the dimension in the table rows. For our purposes we need to see the ‘Start Page’ instead. You’ll find it within the ‘Other’ dimensions menu, which is easier to show than to describe:

Screen grab: how to change site search dimension to start page

On the left of this report you can see a list of the pages where people searched for that term. Where were people when they decided to search for whatever-it-is.

[At this point I’ll mention something that you may find puzzling. It is not unusual to find that many searches start with an ‘entrance’. That means that the first page view recorded in the session was the search results page. A common reason for this would be if someone has used a link to a particular search results page on another site. Sometimes you may even choose to use such an approach for PPC advertising so that you land people on a specific dynamic set of products without needing to build a special landing page or category page for them. These pre-built searches do not involve the visitor personally starting a search, so they are not relevant here. If you discover that the term you are looking is one of these pre-configured searches, ignore it for now.]

Next go to the page on your site where the term you are interested in was used. Ask yourself why someone looking at that page would decide to enter that term into search. Later you might need to get into the details of where the people who searched had come from, because that might have an influence on why they would expect to see ‘that term’ here. But it’s often enough to just accept the simple fact that a load of people were on this page and typed what they did into the search box. They were on the page. They wanted to get to something related to ‘that term’ and they could see nothing to click.

In this case, where people are searching for words which are already on the site, you know what those visitors should have done to get to the right place. But it wasn’t obvious to them.

The solution here is to make the route to the relevant page more prominent. That may not be easy to do if it would require making changes to the permanent navigation of the site. So it would be a good idea to do a test first in order to measure whether you can get an improvement and whether the return on investment would be justified.

For the purposes of this test you need to create some form of manual change to the start page to add a prominent extra link. If it’s the home page or a category page perhaps you might have content-managed promotional areas where you could fit in some form of banner-type link. If people are ending up on a product page and then consistently searching for something else, then you’ve probably got a cast-iron case for using one of the “you may also like” slots, if they’re a feature of the site!

Somehow or other you need to manually add that prominent route to whatever it is people on that page are searching for. Then monitor to see whether there is a drop in the level of search for that term and whether the micro-conversion rate for people reaching the relevant page goes up. If you set up a GA goal for the relevant page you could even use the “Reverse Goal Path” to see whether people were coming from the page where you added the manual link. And you need to track the increase in revenue from the relevant products to see whether the investment is justified.

Market Intelligence

Those points about “New products you don’t actually stock” and “Discontinued items” are important too. They’re another classic example of how web analytics can provide market intelligence. This work is not just about improving your website: the website should be a valuable source of information for the whole business. These search reports can give you information about the demand for different products.

The value of the start pages report is that it matches the way many of us see our own sites. The structure is based on pages which is often the perspective of someone working behind the scenes. This can make the Start Pages Report a very practical tool for actually working on the site.Screen Grab: Where to Find Google Analytics Search Terms Start Page and Switch to Performance View

The first thing to do on this page is to switch the view of the data to ‘Performance’ so that you can see the start pages listed in descending order with Total Unique Searches expressed as percentage share as well as actual numbers. You’re mostly interested in the share, but keep an eye on the numbers too. Search is not heavily used on most sites, other than ones in markets like books, music and technology which are particularly suited for searching, so you need to be aware of when to cut off and avoid wasting time on items which affect only tiny numbers of people.

It’s likely that the homepage will be the top search-start page. If there’s a very steep drop-off, so that all the other pages have low single-digit shares of internal search, then that suggests that people are resorting to search at various times in various places. That’s generally a healthy sign. What you’re looking for are examples of other pages which are getting a higher share of search than similar pages on the site. That’s not happening in the example below, where the start pages are spread very widely throughout the site, with only the home page standing out as prominent.

Screen Grab: Google Analytics Site Search Terms with Steep Drop off after Home Page

Keep an eye out for pages in the top positions with a relatively large share of search.

Category pages are worth a careful look. Even if the highest category page in the list does not stand out as having a particularly high rate of searches, it might be worth digging into this subject just in case. Use the inline search filter (now located above the data table in GA v5) to include only the category pages. That way you will be able to compare the share of search between category pages to see whether any are particularly bad. In order to do this, you’ll need to work out what pattern in your site’s URI appears in all the category pages. If you can’t do that, you may not be able to filter the report and will just have to study the results as best you can.

Screen Grab showing how to use GA In Line search to filter results

Category pages deserve this special attention because they are ‘routing’ pages. Their purpose is to help people find things via browsing navigation. So if people are switching to search on a category page, it suggests that browsing navigation has failed and the customer is becoming frustrated.

You now need to perform the reverse of the process described in the ‘Search Terms” section above. This time you know where they started the search, so you need to drill down into that page in the report to see the internal search terms people used.

Then you need to go and look at that page on the site and ask yourself why people on that page would search for that term, and what you can do to help them.

In the case of category pages it could be that the customers do not have the same expectations about how different types of product should be grouped. This is often the case in my experience. The Search Start Page report can throw light on this by highlighting cases where a significant number of people expect a particular item to be in a category only to discover that it’s not there.

Please treat these reports as powerful clues to navigation problems, not definitive answers. Moving a product from one category to another might please one group of customers but make life hard for those who have had no problem finding it in the original location.

Why Do People Search For Things Which Are Already There?

There’s another kind of category page issue which might be more surprising, but is less troublesome to fix. You may find that people on a category page are searching for items which are already displayed on that page. For some reason they have navigated to that page, or landed on it from outside the site, expecting to see some ‘search terms’ but they haven’t spotted them, so they search instead.

Product names can be a problem here. If the product name does not include what the product ‘is’ and the category page only displays the name, then the word the customer is looking for is nowhere on the page. (You’ve also thrown away a Search Engine Optimisation opportunity as well, but we’ll concentrate on the needs of real people, not search engine spiders, for now.) You might have some short persuasive copy for each item, which can be a great sales tool — but that’s more text and less likely to be read, even if the relevant word is in there. You need to fix the name itself.

If the name doesn’t include the trigger words, you’re depending on the customer recognising the product in a quick scan of the pictures. Which in turn depends on the customer knowing what the item looks like, which is not something you should assume in all markets. Even if the customer has an idea what they’re looking for, their expectation might not match the way you display your products. Perhaps you show them as part of groups, perhaps those groups are in a context such as a ‘lifestyle image’?

People scan very rapidly when they are browsing through a site. The headlines and the images get a brief glance. The smaller text scarcely registers. There are loads of reasons why something which is obvious to you might not be obvious to your customers. The start pages report is telling you: “they came, they didn’t see, they searched…”

As ever, the solution is to test. Select a problem page and see whether you can make a difference. I would start with the words, because they’re almost certainly the easiest to change. But if you can manage to include different types of product picture in your early tests, then you will learn lessons which you can apply to all product photography next time round.

Once you’ve been working with this data for a while you will become familiar with the internal search terms used by your visitors. Ideally you will have taken action to make it easier to find things, by adding those words to your navigation or as on-page trigger words.

But the search terms report has a continuing use once the first round of improvements is in place. You should monitor the report for increases in searches for new terms.

Watch out for the sudden “out of the blue” appearance of a new term. This usually means that something is driving people to the site with an expectation that they are going to find something to do with that word. And they’re not finding it.

A classic example would be a promotion you have launched, with a particular name or perhaps an offer code attached to it. If something goes wrong and the landing page for the campaign does not carry matching material and trigger words (the ‘scent’ of the promotion), then you may well spot this in the internal search keywords report.

Another example would be people starting to search for seasonal products earlier that you would have expected. This could provide evidence that you should be adding your seasonal ranges to the site earlier and maybe launching some of your seasonal campaigns earlier.

Perhaps at some point Google’s ‘Automatic Alerts’ and ‘Custom Alerts’ will start working with external and internal search keywords? It would be great to know about sudden increases in the volume of searches for various terms. But for the time being it’s useful to keep an eye on the internal search terms report to try to catch this happening.

When you spot the sudden appearance of a search term like that, drill down into the search terms report and then use the ‘viewing’ option above the data table to change to look at the medium, source or other campaign data to find out where these people are coming from.

If, for example, you find something like ’email’ is bringing visitors to the page but they are then searching for some promotional term, then the chances are that your email is promoting that term but the relevant trigger words are not on the landing page. Fix the page. ‘Email’ is just one example. Affiliate voucher and coupon campaigns are also prone to this kind of mistake. It even happens with paid search.

Examples like the ones above can be expensive mistakes. So checking your site search terms each day can be a wise idea. These days that’s a doddle to do. The latest version of GA allows you to add Widgets to your dashboard, so you can have a list of your top site search terms right there for you to glance at each day.
Screen Grab: How to add search terms to Google Analytics dashboard

That’s it for now. This long article comes down to one simple point. Listen to the language your visitors are using. They’re probably telling you things you ought to know.

In the final part of this series I’ll give a few more tips and some further sources of information and guidance.

Meanwhile, here’s that navigation menu again:

  1. Previous Post: Why Site Search is So Important
  2. This Post: How To Use Site Search Reports in Google Analytics
  3. Coming up: Extras

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tim Leighton-Boyce April 14, 2012 at 9:31 am

“Watch out for the sudden “out of the blue” appearance of a new term. This usually means that something is driving people to the site with an expectation that they are going to find something to do with that word. And they’re not finding it.”

Yes, indeed…

And here’s a classic example of eating my own dog food — I didn’t think I should add yet more noise to the fuss about the EU Cookie Law and UK Legislation until I checked the Google Analytics site search reports for this site!

Now I know better:

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