Following a dinner party recently, a friend commented (somewhat unkindly, but truthfully) that a certain guest was “the kind of guy who has the conversation he wants to have”. In other words, a bore who fails to read social cues or really participate in the conversation at hand, and instead, talks endlessly about topics that are interesting only to himself, at the expense of the assembled guests.
See where I am going with this?
Marketing content at its best, is really no different from having a really great conversation. Your audience are your guests, and it’s your job to keep them engaged and interested. The best way to do that of course, is to understand what topics they’re interested in, and then focus your content strategy on the topics that are currently relevant. The key to this type of engagement, is a laser focus on content analytics. Otherwise, you run the risk (like our boorish guest) of simply having the conversation you want to have, without taking into account the trending interests of your target audience.
Content optimization is of course an ongoing concern that is top-of-mind to most marketers, with a wealth of tools and competing strategies to achieve engagement, ranking, and relevance. However, site search analytics have remained a relatively untapped resource for most marketing teams. In this article, we’re going to delve into the practical aspects of using site search analytics to gain customer insights that will shape and optimize your online content.
The focus of this article is not going to be how you can improve the relevance of your search results, but how you can use the behavioral data derived from site search analytics to optimize your website and content.
The impact of site search
First off, we’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again- searches on your website are your customers directly telling you what they are looking for. These are low-funnel buyers who typically know what they want, so they’re more likely to produce greater ROIs. In fact, conversion rates for site search users can be up to 50% higher than the average- a recent study found that website visitors who used the site search function converted at 4.63% versus the websites’ average of 2.77%. That’s almost twice as effective!
These search statistics definitely underline the importance of providing users with a seamless and relevant site search experience, but by digging deeper into the user behavior behind the search activity, you can also collect actionable data on how you can improve your content for all users, whether they use search or not.
Practical uses for site search analytics
The uses for site search analytics can be broadly divided into tactical initiatives that are primarily focused on website health, content gaps and search engine optimization (SEO), and strategic initiatives that will guide your overall marketing and communications strategy.
One caveat- you need a search platform that has a strong analytics back-end to implement some of the following strategies. If you don’t have one, here’s a link to handy buyers guide to get your website search function up-to-speed. This is especially relevant for current users of enterprise site search platforms that are looking for alternatives or replacements for products like Google Search Appliance (GSA).
Tactical applications for site search analytics: Website health & content optimization
Search analytics are a great way to measure the overall health of your website, as well as the completeness of your content. The key metrics to look at are:
Most used search terms: This basic metric is important, because it tells you what people are looking for on your site. It’s an easy way to see what’s most important to visitors, and then increase the amount of content in those areas. Schools and colleges for instance, can see what classes, events, or administrative items are most searched for, which could directly inform the curriculum mix for the following term. This list of terms can be used to great effect by cross referencing them against other metrics, as we will demonstrate at the end of this section.
Words without results: Just as “Most used search terms” is a good metric to keep track of, as it’ll give you an indication of what content areas are trending on your website, conversely, “words without results” is an indicator that you’re missing content that is sought after, as a search for these terms did not turn up results.
This can be attributed to a couple of factors- (a) that content may not exist on your site, in which case you should immediately close those content gaps, or (b) you may not have appropriate synonyms set up in your search application. Both synonyms and bigrams will have an effect on words without results- for example, if someone searching for boots enters in the term “shoes” and you don’t have “boots” set up as a synonym, they may get no results even though you have a section on your site related to the product.
Similarly, bigrams like “foot ball” and “football” may not return results, especially in the cases of multi-word long-tailed search if your search platform doesn’t offer this functionality. Luckily, advanced site search platforms will automatically recognize bigrams via contextual cues based on the words around them, and take care of this for you, which dramatically increases the efficiency of your search.
However, even if your search application recognizes these terms, it still helps to analyze these searches and then group your content in a way that is logical for your customers. This information is also important for content writers, helping them to craft SEO friendly content.
Ineffective searches: Failure analysis is a key factor in creating more relevant online content. “Ineffective searches” are cases where the user did not click on any of the search results delivered to them. This could indicate that the results delivered were not what the visitor was looking for, which could either be a failure of your search engine, or could mean that you actually do not have enough relevant content in that area.
For example, let’s say on Cludo’s website we see that multiple visitors search for “drupal search appliance”. If we notice that none of the visitors are clicking on the results, then we know that either the content is bad, or we are not effectively delivering them relevant results related to Google Search Appliance replacement alternatives. This can be especially relevant to searches taking place on a help center.
By examining these ineffective searches, we can immediately determine what content areas of the site to beef up- in this case it’s also a good idea to seed in keywords like “Drupal” specifically to help guide visitors to the relevant content. We can also derive these from our trending search words and intersperse them within the new website content, so that it’s easily found in future searches. This can also have a positive SEO impact on a website.
Search origination pages: The important thing to do when analyzing these metrics is not to look at them only individually, but to see what story they tell when cross-referenced against each other. Beyond simply the search terms and results, gaining the entire context around the search query is important. Search origination pages tell you what page a visitor was on when they executed a search.
If your “most used search terms” have “search origination pages” that should already be informing the visitors of the information they are searching for, you immediately know you either have serious content gaps on those pages, or that your UX is faulty.
For example, if there are a number of visitors to a university website searching for “Pell Grants”, and the searches are originating from a page that lists financial aid options, then either that content should be added to that page, or if it is already there, the page should be restructured to make that content more easily accessible to prospective students.
Tying in Google Analytics (GA) data to your search analysis can also reveal some interesting insights. Looking at “Time after search” and customer exits following search activity for specific keywords will tell you whether visitors are finding value in the content on your site. Because you have a specific keyword to tie to these metrics, you will have a clear idea of what a potential customer was looking for, rather than merely guessing at which piece of content captured (or failed to capture) their attention, causing a long browsing session or exit.
Strategic applications: Using site search analytics to shape business & marketing strategy
Beyond the tactical applications of search analytics, they can also be further used to create strategic insights that guide your marketing and business strategy. Search analytics by their nature tend to be predictive, and can help you prepare for upcoming events in your market that might otherwise not be noticeable.
For instance, by analyzing longer term trends in search words, an organization can begin to forecast trends in customer behavior. Marketers can use a combination of website analytics and site search analytics to identify how their audiences are behaving online, with the search analytics adding much greater specificity, depth and context to the analysis.
A good example of this dates back to as early as 2008, where Google found it could predict flu trends based on search activity for early flu symptoms. In this case, search term analysis potentially saved lives by helping hospitals prepare for a surge in patients (this remains a good example although the Google Flu Trends analytics model did eventually fail in 2013). Similarly, trending search terms on a macro level have also been reliably used as predictors of the stock market.
On a micro level, similar to the Google examples, search term trend analysis from a single website can impact such diverse offline initiatives as event preparation, supply chain forecasting, or the creation of future products based on customer needs. It’s an incredibly valuable predictor of future demand and behavior. For example, if you see an uptick in searches for “black shoes” on your website, you’ll have a fairly reliable indicator that production should trend in that direction as well.
This keyword research also works to unify the overall marketing strategy for an organization. By identifying trending keywords, you can align your website, social, pay per click (PPC), PR and email content around a discrete set of terms that you already know is trending upward. For example, look at the complete list of terms that are being used in your internal site search- these should also be included in your PPC and SEO keyword targeting strategies, as these are likely the terms your visitors expect to see on your site.
The key here is to identify they keywords with the highest potential for return, as well as closing the biggest gaps in your overall messaging. By blending search insights with overall traffic analytics, marketers can effectively optimize their wider online and offline strategy to drive greater ROIs.
Where is site search going next?
The current major gap in the market is that most site search providers focus only on delivering relevant results to visitors via the front-end, but currently don’t focus on delivering actionable analytics via the back-end of their site search solutions. This means organizations are missing out on a treasure-trove of insights that could be used to improve their websites and content overall.
However demand is king, and marketers and IT professionals alike are waking up to the strategic value of site search analytics. The market will answer, by going beyond search as a discovery tool, towards the creation of insight engines. The future of search lies at the intersection of machine learning and natural language processing (NLP). Aided by machine learning to make sense of the vast quantities of data available, we’re on the forefront of a rapid shift in marketing capabilities.
This shift will create greater relevance for end users, as well as more contextual insights for marketers to understand the content needs and behaviors of their customers. However, none of this infrastructure will have any impact on an organization if the marketing team is not paying attention.
Your customers are speaking to you. Are you listening?