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Searching for gold

Search is a veritable gold mine that is frequently ignored. I’m not talking about Search Engines and Keywords, I’m talking about your internal search. Providing you track internal keyword searches, you can gain a wealth of understanding. Internal search is generally used as a quick wayfinding method, highlighting areas of content that are well used, but are not readily available. And more often than not, it’s seasonal as well.

Search is a veritable gold mine that is frequently ignored.

I’m not talking about Search Engines and Keywords, I’m talking about your internal search. Providing you track internal keyword searches, you can gain a wealth of understanding.

Internal search is generally used as a quick wayfinding method, highlighting areas of content that are well used, but are not readily available.  And more often than not, it’s seasonal as well.

The following report shows the top 5 keywords used by students on our University website, smoothed using a 21 day moving average.

Daily Search Term trends

Two things immediately jump out.  Firstly, notice how searches for Bookshop increased dramatically in late February, then declined, then Library picked up substantially in March, followed by Exam Timetable in late April (spiking suddenly in late May).

Very seasonal activity, centered around the Student’s life cycle at the University.  In February, having started a new semester, they all needed books.  Then as semester progressed, they all needed access to the Library, and lastly, as exams approached, they all wanted to know their Exam Timetables.

Great – but how can we use this?

Well, firstly this points to the fact that there is no clear navigation on our site to these destinations.  There’s actually a reason for that – our public site is not designed for active current students as they should be using the Student Portal.  That aside, we can assist though in making these destinations easier to get to.

One thing we can do with Omniture is to export these top keywords to our database on a daily basis and then represent them on the site, through things like tag clouds and quick search results, making their lives easier in the process.

By using real data and automating the process, the seasonality of searches will also come through to the site as well.

The other interesting thing about the above chart is their search for timetable, as opposed to exam timetable.  When they start a new semester, they are interested in their class timetables and frequently search for them.  As time progresses and the memory kicks in, that activity slows down.  Again, this can be used in a number of ways – not only online, but through mobile apps and offline support media as well.

In order to track search keywords, simply put the keyword into an s.prop.  You might also want to put the number of results into another s.prop so that you can cross-reference the results on a keyword by keyword basis.  This would highlight any search terms  that return no results.

Segment your keywords

As always, understanding your audience is critical online.  If you segment your audience types, you’ll also be able to see the different searches conducted by different audiences.  We do this and the results are (obviously) very different.  But, without the ability to do it and show it, you’ll be taking an educated guess that they are different.

To do this, put the audience type into another s.prop and use the getAndPersist() plugin to set a cookie.  That way, all activity can actually be segmented by audience type.

Now you can provide some really smart assistance

When you start to build your tag clouds or your quick search lists, you can base the results on the value in the cookie, thereby customizing the information to the user and making it more relevant to them.  Just a few little tricks like this and you’ve helped to increase the usability of your site, which will go along way in driving customer loyalty (and hopefully revenue).

The content and advice contained in this post may be out of date. Last updated on July 25, 2009.

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