Why you should be checking out site search analytics

May marketing madness usability week, post #27

By Louis Rosenfeld

This posting was originally published in Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success by Greg Nudelman (John Wiley, 2011). Co-author, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O'Reilly, 2006) and Site Search Analytics: Conversations with Your Customers (Rosenfeld Media, 2011)

Not sure if your site's searchers are getting what they need from your search system?  Then there's good news: somewhere in your organization, searchers' queries are being logged. Find that data and use it:  it's a goldmine of user research and insight, and you already own it.  Unlike other types of web analytics, it's semantically rich: it records users' needs, not just their actions. And most importantly, they're expressing their information needs in their own words.

Benefits of Site Search Analytics

You can benefit from it in many ways, including these:

  • You can identify gaps in your offerings. Do people keep searching for a product you don't currently offer? Maybe you should reconsider.
  • You'll determine ways to improve your site's search interface and search results design, leading to better conversion rates. At minimum, you'll know how wide that search box needs to be
  • You can suss out the points at which navigation and search fail, and squash them like bugs.
  • You can learn the tone and flavor of your users' language, and make sure that your own content--titles, metadata, and copy--matches up well with that language.
  • You can devise a variety of search-related metrics that you may not have considered before. These in turn can be integrated into your organization's KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), enabling you to do a better job of assessing how well your organization is meeting its goals.  So your managers ought to like site search analytics as much as you will.

The Misconception

Ironically, as useful as all this sounds, many organizations don't bother to analyze their users' search queries.  They simply may be ignorant of the potential of site search analytics, or find that their query data is buried in some corner of their organization that's too hard to reach. But perhaps the biggest barrier is that site search analytics sounds like it would be hard to do.

That's a misconception: even free analytics applications like Google Analytics now provide at least minimal site search analytics features. Spending an hour a month reviewing the most basic reports will yield some great insights that will help your organization right away--and ideally will pave the way to going further.  Here are two types of reports that are great starting points:

1. Most frequent queries: Study this at least once per month to get a sense of what your users' most important information needs are, and how they change over time.  Test those queries out yourself:  are they retrieving relevant results?

2. Most frequent queries with 0 results: Assuming 0 results means failure, which queries are going wrong the most?  Is the content there, but mistitled or rife with jargony language? Or do you need to create new content

In all cases, start with the most frequent queries the short head' to the long tail you may have heard of--because frequent queries are really frequent, much more than you might expect.  If you sorted all of your site's queries by frequency, and stacked them from most frequent to least frequent, you'd get a distribution that looks like this one:

The Zipf Distribution: a few frequent queries, the ones in the "short head," account for a huge volume of all search activity.

Simple But Powerful...Zipf Distribution

Called a Zipf Distribution, after economist George Kingsley Zipf, this curve describes just about every site's search activity, and is at the core of site search analytics.  It makes a simple but powerful point: a few unique queries go a really long way. So if you start by analyzing short head queries, your efforts will also go a really long way.

This point is so important that we're going to illustrate it in yet one more way: text. The following table (from Michigan State University) shows that the most frequent query ("campus map") accounts for 1.4% of search during the time period studied. To reach 10% of all search activity, we only need our 14 most frequent queries (#14 is "housing").  14 is not a big number.  To get to 20% of all search activity takes 42 queries, and so on:

The Zipf Distribution rendered in text. Note that it only takes 500 queries to account for half of all search activity.

Analyze Search Activity in Your Available Time

Your efforts to analyze search queries can scale quite nicely based on your available time.  Only have an hour this month?  Analyze the top ten queries; they'll account for a good chunk of all search activity.  Have twice as much time next month?  Keep going, picking off the common queries, one by one.  Your work will have a huge impact as long as you let Zipf drive your priorities.

Give Customers the Answers They Need

Your site's searchers are trying to have a conversation with your organization. If people do not find what they need, they may go to your competitors' sites.  If they have no alternatives and are stuck with you, their poor experience will make them unhappy and damage your brand. Through their search queries, they're asking you--in their own words--for products, information, help, and ideas. Site search analytics are one of the best ways to understand what your customers are looking for and to make sure you're giving them the answers they need.

This post is one out of Clicktale's month long May Marketing Madness series. Each of our daily posts will highlight and explain today's best practices, useful tips and smart tools to measure and improve your online business performance. This week's theme is usability. Make sure to stay tuned in for more!

About the Author

Louis Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant for Fortune 500 corporations and other large organizations, and founder and publisher of Rosenfeld Media, a publishing house focused on user experience books. He has been instrumental in helping establish the fields of information architecture and user experience, and in articulating the role and value of librarianship within those fields.

Louis is co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O'Reilly; 3rd edition 2006) and Search Analytics For Your Site (Rosenfeld Media; 2011), co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and a former columnist for Internet World, CIO, and Web Review. He blogs regularly and tweets (@louisrosenfeld) even more so.

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