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Let Your Customers Tell You What They Want: Paths of Desire

by Tim Leighton-Boyce

Listen to your customers. Let them tell you what they want… Let them show you how to make your site better.

Illustration showing confused stick man surrounded by question marks.

Navigation is one of the biggest problems we all face when shopping online. It crops up again and again as a pain point in customer surveys. So why not let your customers help you make your navigation better?

This series of articles explains how to use on-site search reports to improve your site and help shoppers find what they want.

You’ll also discover how you can use this information to gain market insight which will be valuable offline as well.

Traditional market researchers would love to get their hands on this kind of data. And it’s already sitting there waiting for you.

The step-by-step instructions are based on Google Analytics, which has some excellent reports for this purpose. But the principles can be applied in any analytics system which allows you to see the search phrases people use and the pages where they use them.

The title of this piece and the hints above are probably enough for you to get going. This technique is so simple and the results are often so clear that you’ll probably learn something if you dive into those reports right now.

But if you’d like to learn a bit more, please read on. This post contains Part One

  1. Why Site Search is So Important
  2. Part Two: How To Use Site Search Reports in Google Analytics
  3. Part Three:

The simplest way of finding out what your customers want is to ask them. And then pay attention to what they tell you. But that’s easier said than done even in a real ‘bricks and mortar’ store.

We’re all familiar with this dead-end retail dialogue:

“Can I help you?”
“No, I’m just looking.”

Online the situation is even more extreme. We don’t get to speak to our customers.

So you should grab any chance you get to let the visitors to your site tell you what they want using their own words.

I’m a great fan of using embedded surveys or feedback systems to listen to the voice of the customer. Give visitors a chance to tell you things and they will be very generous with their suggestions and advice. Any form of usability testing, whether it’s a formal lab-based study or a quick bit of “do it yourself” testing, is another great way of hearing visitors describe what they want to do on your site.

Clickstream reporting tools, like Google Analytics and Yahoo!Web Analytics or Coremetrics, Omniture, Unica etc. are not normally considered any good for analysing visitor intent. They’re great for recording ‘what’ visitors did, but not ‘why’ they did it. But that’s not completely true, as I will explain.

Search is the Language of Intent

There are two places where analytics tools allow us a rare and valuable glimpse into the intentions of the visitor — the elusive ‘why’:

  • the external search keywords reports
  • the onsite search terms reports

In the case of the of the external paid search you need to be sure that the report you are looking at is one which is showing the actual phrase typed by the visitor, and not just the keywords which were matched. But provided that is the case, the words you see there are ones your visitors chose.

It’s as if that bricks and mortar dialogue had been:

“Can I help you?”
“Yes, please: I’m looking for…”

That’s much better. Now we’re talking. We can do a lot with that information. For example, plenty of work has been done on ways of matching intentions, as expressed in external search phrases, with the content on the site’s landing pages in order to reduce bounce rates and smooth the path to the checkout. But that’s not what this article is about.

Internal Search is the Voice of Frustrated Intent

We worry a lot about getting people to our sites and perhaps not enough about helping them once they’ve arrived. So the internal search terms reports can easily be overlooked.

There’s no pay per click budget at stake to focus attention on internal search. Meanwhile the volume of data is also smaller: typically less than 20% of visitors will use the internal site search. Most of us tend to use search to get to sites, but want to point and click when we get there.

So navigation and information architecture seem vital matters to site-owners, while internal search is left on the sidelines. As a result, I suspect that more attention is paid to the path-analysis and site overlay reports in our web analytics tools compared to the internal site search reports. This is a mistake.

Path-analysis is a time-bandit which can consume large chunks of your life for little gain. Often the more you learn, the less you know. On the other hand, internal search reports can often provide instant insights and even indicate what action to take. There are not many analytics reports which give such specific details about what you need to do.

Internal Search Terms Tell You What Visitors Want — and Where to Put It

Two wise men have encouraged me to treat internal search reports as a gold mine: Jared Spool and my Father-in-Law.

My Father-in-Law’s contribution was a story from the days when he was doing his UK National Service in the RAF. He told me about the RAF approach to planning a new camp. He explained that they would put up all the buildings first, but lay down very few paths between them. They would then wait to see what happened.

As people went about their daily routines in the camp, natural paths would start to emerge. As the paths wore down the grass, it would become clear which were the important routes. At that stage it was then possible to provide paved paths which matched the needs of the people using the place.

You’ll hear different versions of this story from all over the world. Another example involves the building of a university campus. In fact there are books devoted to the subject:

The phrase “desire paths” was coined by Gaston Bachelard in his book ‘The Poetics of Space’ to describe the paths people wear into the ground along the routes we actually want to use. We can see them all around us. There’s even a Desire Path Flickr group full of examples.

Desire path cutting off corner

There are desire paths on our web sites too. But how do we spot them? Not with ‘path analysis’, despite the name.

This is where Jared Spool comes to the rescue. One of his standard pieces of advice is to use your internal search reports to look for clues as to where people wanted to go. In particular, look at the page where the search began. This is your visitor saying to you: “I got to this page, looking for ‘keyword’, and at this point I gave up using the navigation and tried search instead.”

Once enough data has built up on your site you can often spot some patterns, like the emerging paths in those newly-built RAF camps.

Seize those search terms. Treat them as the golden nuggets they are. This is the voice of your customers.

Examine your Site Search Terms in Detail

  • Look closely at the pages where the search began and possibly the page most often preceding it (OK: path analysis has its uses, I concede)
  • See if the keyword deserves a place on that page, or in the navigation. Your visitors think it does
  • Put it there if you can
  • Help visitors turn into customers

Coming Up: So How Do You Tap Into These Golden Insights?

In the next part of the series you’ll learn how to put Google Analytics Site Search Reports to work for you. Let those reports show you what your visitors want, the language they use to describe it and where they’re having problems finding it. I’ll explain how to use to this information to improve the performance of your site, increase customer satisfaction and gain valuable market insight.

After that I’ll give you a bonus tip which will allow you to look at those preceding pages without using the path analysis reports!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim August 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

I can’t resist adding this completely non-ecommerce link. It’s to a splendid collection of Desire Paths in East London:

Nate April 29, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Thanks for the nice series of posts. This has been most helpful!

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