Using your site metrics to find out page views and learn what is popular and what isn't on your site is a valuable and common tool for Web designers. But one statistic that is often overlooked is your search engine results. I don't mean the results of getting your site into search engines with SEO. No, I mean what people are searching for once they arrive at your site. Although, knowing what they searched for to find your site can be useful too.
Letting Customers Search Your Site
The first step to using search metrics is to add search capabilities to your site. If you don't have a search tool on your site, it's a lot harder to use search metrics. You can, but you have to rely only on external searches that come into your site, not what people are searching for once they get to your pages.
What Search Metrics Should You Look For?
The metrics you get will depend a lot upon the tool that you're using to provide search on your Web site. And, as with most things, the more money you pay for your search engine, the more you will get. But some of the most useful stats include:
- Popular search terms - these would be the terms that people are searching for. If the terms are ranked by popularity that is even more useful. As then you can know that your most popular search term is "dog biscuits" while your least popular is something else entirely. On this site, the current most popular search term is "web design".
- Searches with results - these are the searches that returned results on your site. It can be surprising to find out what terms people are searching for and finding content that matches on your site. For example, this week someone searched for "cats" on my site, and got some results.
- Searches without results - these are searches that resulted in no results found. These can be silly, but they often can be very helpful.
- Search path - this would be the pages the customers clicked on after they searched. Knowing what article was selected from a search can be ideal in helping improve the article and add new ones.
What if You Don't Get Those Metrics (or Don't Have Search)?
If you only have what was searched for, you can still find out which ones have results and which don't - simply try them out in your site search. It's a bit more tedious, but if you limit yourself to the most popular search terms, you can get a good sense of the results without a lot of work.
If your search engine doesn't provide metrics or you don't have search on your site, you can still benefit from search metrics. You just have to use the metrics from external search engines instead.
Most search engines like Google and MSN include information in the referrer that shows you the search terms that were used to find your site. If your Web server logs don't include the referrer information, ask your hosting provider to switch you to the Combined Log Format or switch to it yourself in Apache.
Then, look for referrers coming from your favorite search engines. I usually look for referrers from Google, MSN, and Yahoo. The referrers will look something like this:
The bold portion of each referrer is the search terms that were used to find your site (q= in Google and MSN, and p= in Yahoo!). Words are separated by a plus-sign (+). So in the above searches, my site was found using the search term "web design".
How to Use the Search Metrics
Once you have some search metrics to work from, you can use them to improve your site. Searches are very valuable because they tell you what your customers want to know - and what they're not finding in your navigation or on your site at all.
- What are they finding?
This is the first result of searches, and knowing what your customers are seeing is important to improving your site. For example, on my site the most popular search is for "web design". When you search for that on my site, the first result is my home page, followed by my articles listing and my site map. You don't get to a listing of Web design specific articles until the fourth result. So I know that I need to improve the optimization of that page for the term "web design". I might also consider changing the text on my articles index and site map to downplay "web design" and get them more focused.
- What aren't they finding?
This can be even more useful than what they are finding. I use this technique all the time to come up with new article ideas. For example, I wrote a number of ASP articles because the search results said that people wanted them and weren't getting them.
- What terms are they looking for?
Sometimes you might have the exact article that someone is looking for, but they aren't finding it because they are searching for a different set of terms or a different spelling. For example, my site has a lot of visitors from the U.K., but I am from the United States, so I spell words like "center" differently than they do. If you search for "centre" on my site you wouldn't find my How to Center article. My search metrics tell me that that term is popular, so I need to adjust the Web page to include that alternate spelling so that you find the page you want.
- Take a look at your navigation
If you have a very generic term as one of your most popular search terms, you should consider adding it to your navigation, even if the new navigation element takes you to a page you already have on your site. For example, I added Web Design to my site categories (navigation on my home page) because that search term was so popular.