Four Considerations for Optimizing Your Internal Site Search
Before you can improve your internal site search, you first need to understand how your users are interacting with it.
When we talk to clients about the challenges they have with their websites, one area comes up again and again — the site search. You know, the little search box you typically see in the header of your website. Some common complaints:
“Nobody can find anything via the search.”
“The search turns up irrelevant results.”
“Our .edu search doesn’t work as well as Google.”
“MIT has a search box on their homepage and it works great, so why not us?”
Unfortunately, there’s no magical module that will fix your site search, let alone make it work as well as Google. But there are many factors beyond technology that influence the effectiveness of your site search — and the good news is, much of that is within your control.
Understand Who Is Actually Using Site Search
Everyone uses websites differently. So when we think about site search, as we do when we think about any aspect of your digital experience, we should think about it in the context of your users.
Research over the last 15 years indicates that users tend to browse a site's taxonomy more often than they use search functionality. Unless the website is like Google or Amazon and providing an enormous array of information across nearly limitless categories, people typically regard browsing through categories as less labor intensive than entering criteria into a box and clicking “Search.” Browsing also allows users to experience the wealth of information a website provides, like walking through the aisles of a department store.
However, there are still people — between 30% and 40% of users — who prefer to use site searches as their primary method of finding the information they need. (And site search will continue to be a priority for users accessing your site via a mobile device.) This is helpful to know, because it means that a user’s choice to search does not mean your site is broken — it’s simply the user’s preference.
For example, through our user research, we’ve observed that younger audiences — rigorously trained by years of Googling — are predisposed to use search more than others. Roughly one-fifth of current or prospective students will search before browsing.
Few searchers, however, will use the search boxes provided on your institutional website. Instead, they prefer to exit the site and conduct a Google search by entering their search criteria and the college's name — for example, “tuition xyz university” or “chemical engineering xyz college.” These users have found from experience that using Google in this way yields quicker and more accurate results than the vast majority of internal search engines.
Show Me the Data
One of the most powerful ways to gain insight into how your users are actually using your website’s internal search function is to configure internal site search tracking via Google Analytics. This will allow you to not only understand how much people are using your site search, but who they are and what they are searching for. You can evaluate keyword data and top visited pages from internal search, but also set up a filter for anyone who uses site search to see how they are using the rest of the website. Use this data to inform your SEO approach, information architecture, content strategy, and even direct marketing efforts.
Generally speaking, we see analytics indicate that internal site search usage is low, and that most of those who use it are typically members of the internal community (i.e. current students) with very specific and consistent needs (e.g. academic calendar, tuition, transcript request) — which could be addressed via improved audience-specific information architecture and SEO. Looking at your mobile segment can help you understand if those users approach search differently than desktop users.
Improve Your Content, Improve Your Site Search Results
The quality of your search results corresponds directly to the quality of your content. Think about the junk drawer in your kitchen. We’ve all got one — mine is mostly full of bread ties and rubber bands. But because of all the bread ties I thoughtlessly toss in there, it’s really hard to find a bag clip when I need one.
Now think about your website. We are constantly adding content — news articles, events, program curriculums, student club overviews — but less frequently pruning or consolidating content. Over time, this contributes to site bloat — the mass of bread ties that keep your user from finding the bag clip they really need.
A thoughtful and consistent content auditing approach — whereby you are regularly revisiting your site content, removing old and irrelevant information, and updating and optimizing your remaining content — will benefit your site in so many ways, ranging from performance to SEO. But it will also improve the quality and relevance of your internal site search results.
That said, tempting as it is, we shouldn’t go hacking and slashing away at reams of content willy-nilly — there should be a plan guiding your actions. Develop a plan to triage older content so you can figure out what still has value, what could be updated to add more value, and what is no longer relevant. Understanding your users’ needs and behavior through research and analytics can help inform this process.
(As an aside, since we’re talking about reducing site bloat, another important way to do this is ensuring that search engine result pages are non-indexable by blocking those URLs from being crawled via your robots.txt file. This will improve your organic search!)
With regard to SEO, it may seem obvious, but the same work you put into optimizing your content for organic search will benefit your internal search engine users, as well. This includes optimizing your page titles and meta descriptions, as well as writing content using terms that people actually use. (For example, if you only write about “wireless internet” but never “wifi,” you may inadvertently shut out people seeking help accessing the campus network — this is where looking at those internal search analytics comes in really handy!) With some internal search options, you can even manually align results with common search keywords/queries, to help your users get to the content they want even faster.
Okay, NOW We Can Talk About the Technology
Once you understand how your site visitors use search and you’ve improved your content, you can then consider the best technological approach for managing your search. While most content management systems have a default search function, you may also consider employing a module or plugin for additional features and functionality.
For example, with Drupal, the default Drupal site search can be enhanced with modules such as Search API. Modules like this allow for weighting of content types and fields, faceted search, and the ability to tag important pages with relevant search terms.
You’ll want to be sure to understand how that data is managed and stored, as it may affect site performance. In our Drupal example, when Apache Solr is used to store the data as opposed to the Drupal database, there is a positive impact on performance.
As you configure your site search and consider options to pin or weight certain types of results, it’s important to keep those primary use cases and user needs at top of mind. For example, you may want to deprioritize news and events results through your global site search, and instead direct users to search for those content types via the news and calendar sections of your site. Or you could pin your canonical tuition and fees page as a search result when people search “cost” or “tuition”.
The better you understand how people are using your site and what information is most valuable to them, the more efficiently you can fine-tune your search so it becomes less of a firehose and more like a refreshing fountain.
Optimize the Presentation of Your Site Search Results
It’s not enough to just have a great site search tool — we also have to pay attention to the usability and presentation of your search engine results, so users can appreciate their full value. Keep in mind that your UX and design approach may be informed by how your search tool of choice allows you to parse results.
Other considerations for the UX of your search engine results page (SERP):
Clear display of original query and total results found
Sorting or filtering of results
Pagination or loading
Display of rich media within results via Open Graph Protocol
Returning accurate results for common misspellings (e.g. bursar vs. bersar) or synonyms (e.g. enrollment vs. admissions) for key queries, providing a “did you mean” spelling recommendation if query is misspelled
A default “no results” SERP that provides useful alternate paths and information instead of being a dead end
Providing related recommendations if there are slim to no results
Convey relevant metadata if useful (e.g. date, author, description, topic tag, etc.)
Your search application of choice may also allow for autocomplete of common search queries directly in the search box, display of your recent search queries or popular queries by other users, or display other queries by users who searched the same term — though these options may require extra configuration.
The aforementioned attention to your internal site search configuration can give you valuable insights to tune your filtering options over time.
Some helpful articles that talk about search user interfaces:
Examples of Enhanced Site Search Experiences
There are also opportunities to provide contextual search functionality beyond the global search box in your header. For example, in addition to the global site search, the St. John’s University site also includes an opportunity for users to self-identify and choose from a set of common site destinations for that user type.
On the program discovery page for Illinois Tech, users can type in a keyword to find programs that relate to a term, such as “environment.” The terms are found in the overview copy that users see if they use the “Compare Programs” function, so you would write that copy with the same SEO considerations you would keep in mind for those searching via Google.
You may also consider splitting distinct types of search results. For example, when you type “financial aid” into Champlain College’s global site search, the search engine results page splits the results into web pages and people contact information. This requires the terms being searched via both the site search engine (in this case, Google) and their directory application. The people search results column also has tabs for secondary search options through the course catalog and the library catalog.
The Importance of Your Site Search
One thing we often remind clients is that they are probably not their primary audience. Their primary audience is not sitting at a desk all day using the site to do their job, and may be from a different demographic, with different needs and their own user journey to follow.
So while site search may be at the top of the list of issues when we talk to internal stakeholders, it’s important to put that need in context of the website’s audience hierarchy.
That’s not to say site search isn’t important — because it most certainly is — but what exactly will make your site search successful will be informed by thinking beyond your own experience. And that approach may also yield the realization that SEO is a similarly important if not more worthy investment, if your site’s primary audiences are external and thus you should focus more on organic search.
By thinking about site search holistically, we lift all boats. Now that’s the right result.
Multiple members of the OHO team contributed their insights to this article.