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August 17, 2011 / Steve Hennigs

Is Internal Site Search Helping Or Hurting Your Website?

It seems to me that organizations spend a great deal of resources on redesigning their websites but for some reason decide that the search functionality on the website does not deserve the same attention.

This is very puzzling because so many people use external search engines like Google or Bing to find a website (check out Bill Hubbell’s blog post on the value of external search) that is stands to reason that the website’s internal site search would be used (and trust me, it is) to find specific content.  If an organization’s internal site search is not at the same high quality level as the rest of the website there is a strong possibility the visitors to the website will be scared off, never to return again.

If you are reading this and thinking to yourself “Hey, that sounds like my website.” Then I suggest you consider the following exercise.

1. Determine the usage of your internal site search

To confirm the usage of your internal site search I would suggest going through your web analytics tool and looking over at least one month’s worth of data.  Any tool worthwhile will have this data for you.  If you use Siteimprove Analytics, select the Internal Site Search option in the left hand menu.

Not only do you want to determine the overall usage of your internal site search but also take note of the top searches performed as you will need those for the next step in the exercise.

*Note, if the number of searches performed is less than 5% of your total site traffic you may want to consider doing away with internal site search all together and focus on continually improving your site navigation*

2. Perform searches on your internal site search with your top searches

Once you have an understanding of how much your internal site search is being used it is time to perform some searches to get a feel for what your website visitor is seeing.  If you have not devoted adequate resources to your internal site search, this might be a little disheartening but do not worry, the purpose of this post is to help you improve.

When you are performing searches here are a few things to be on the lookout for:

  • Is the Search Box easy to find on your home page?

This may seem like it goes without saying but after looking at a few websites I decided that it needed to be mentioned.  By having a look at two city websites in the Twin Cities area where I live I found an example of great search box placement and not so good search box placement.

Good search box placement – The City of Maple Grove, MN
Not so good search box placement – The City of Edina, MN

In the first example there is no scrolling required and the search box is displayed prominently around the site navigation.  As internal site search supplements good site navigation this is great placement of the search box.  Finally this website does provide a usable search box on the home page so that visitors have the choice of utilizing navigation if they like or performing a search if that is their preferred method of locating the content they desire.

The second example is much less user-friendly in terms of location and does not even display a search box at all.  It may not seem like much but having to make one additional click to perform a search certainly has to have a negative impact how often internal site search is used on this website.

  • Does the search results page match the look and feel of the rest of your website?

If your search results page bears little or no resemblance to the rest of your website you are not doing yourself any favors.  First of all you are making your visitor feel as though they have left your website simply because they performed a search which can have a negative impact on the visitor’s user experience.  You are also missing out on an opportunity for your brand (logo, colors, navigation layout, etc.) to be seen one more time by the website visitor.

Thankfully as I looked through for examples of poor layout and design I did not come across a website that made this mistake (However, I know you are out there and I will find you).

  • Are the results RELEVANT to the search term used

Websites with poor search results were the reason I wrote this post in the first place.  As the whole purpose of having an internal site search is to easily direct people to the content they seek I would say that this is the most important step in your evaluation exercise.

For our example here I will use Stony Brook University’s website.  I performed a search for the word “tuition” as many prospective students I assumed would be interested in knowing the financial commitment associated with attending this university.

The page I was hoping to find at the top of the list is this page, this page, or at the very least this page but alas I did not see any of them until page 2 of the search results.  While I could be convinced that the Word and PDF documents (results 3 and 4) could be relevant results for a student or parent with a student already committed to Stony Brook University I believe the majority of visitors performing this search would be disappointed and frustrated with the results.

For our counter-example I performed that same search for “tuition” on another school in New York, Sarah Lawrence College.  With this search we can see that all results on the first page are very relevant.  The nice thing about something done well is that I do not have to spend a great deal of time analyzing it as the results speak for themselves.

So take your five or ten most searched terms and plug them in to your internal site search.  If you are happy with the results, congratulations!  If not, find a way to improve them immediately.  This could involve performing basic on page SEO for your most important pages, adjusting settings on the internal site search if that feature is available to you, or (apologies for the shameless plug) seeking out a new vendor/solution like Siteimprove for internal site search altogether.

Here is a good blog post that can help you determine if your internal site search is meeting your needs.

3.  Do you have helpful features?

The final part of your Internal Site Search Analysis has to do with any additional features you have that can prove helpful to your website visitors.  Things to check for are:

  • SpellCheck – Does your search have a spellcheck or are zero search results returned on misspelled words?
  • Synonym Search – Can you set up synonym’s for your most popular search terms?  An example would be ‘attorney’ and ‘lawyer’ returning the same results on a legal website.
  • Category Search – Can your visitors segment the results provided by what section of your website a page appears in?  You can see an example of category search by going to the website of the law firm Bryan Cave LLP.  When performing a search you will see the categories in the right menu of the results page.
  • Advanced Search – Does your search offer other advanced features like results by document type (.pdf, .html, .aspx., .xls., etc.) or by country if you are an international organization?

Each of these features can either simplify or enhance the experience of searching for content on your website ultimately helping your visitor get to the content they seek.

4. Perform Routine Analysis of your Internal Site Search going forward

For ongoing internal site search analytics I am going to take a backseat to the web analytics master, Avinash Kaushik.  If you have not run into this already check out his great post, Kick Butt with Internal Site Search Analytics.  He builds on some of the things I have touched on in this post and has a few additional ideas for analyzing your data as well.

By making sure your internal site search is up to the same high quality standards as the rest of your website you will be doing your visitors, and in turn your organization, a huge favor.

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