Enhance your blog or website with Google’s Site Search. Measure the results in Google Analytics.

You’ve done it. You’ve created a successful web site with compelling content. A loyal community of readers keeps coming back for more. SEO efforts have paid off too, with lots of traffic from Google, Yahoo!, MSN and minor search engines. Time to sit back with a fine Real Ale or a glass of Monteregio di Massa Marittima… but didn’t you forget something? Internal perhaps?

By Internal Site Search we mean a search feature on your website to allow site visitors to find what they’re looking for, using their own words.

Don’t fret, there are good reasons to deploy site search functionality and it’s relatively easy to do.

Why implement Site Search functionality?

Traditional menu based site navigation usually works well for small institutional websites (Our products, ContInternal site search is someone visiting your website and using the search feature on your website to find information.act Us, Work with Us…). Yet successful web sites tend to grow over time as new content is added. are an excellent example of this phenomena. Menu navigation systems struggle to keep up with the vast amount of information found in the content rich web sites so prevalent today. try to solve the problem with multiple content based navigation points created by using categories, keyword tag assignments and other taxonomies. Yet navigating by category or tag isn’t necessary intuitive and depends on a manual process of assigning the “right” categories and tags. Such processes are hit or miss by their very nature.

Just as directories gave way to unstructured text searches in AltaVista and later Google, site search is a more powerful and efficient way to let users discover a web site’s content on their terms.

Site search helps users:

  • Explore your site further by finding related materials to the current page
  • Find what they were really looking for when they’ve landed on the “wrong” page from an external site or search engine
  • Appreciate the extra level of professionalism the site offers

Site search helps site owners:

  • Understand what visitors really want – they tell us explicitly using their – potentially pointing out new opportunities to explore
  • Improve site content and navigation to meet visitor expressed needs
  • Decrease site abandonment due to site visitors not finding what they were looking for.

Ugly results no more, even with “free” solutions

I suspect the that reason many sites have ignored site search is that until recently there weren’t a lot of good options available for sites with modest budgets. Most search engines do offer free search forms you can place on your site. Yet these “free” search forms, like this one still available from Google, have many drawbacks. The search results are usually presented on the search engine’s site – needless to say, not too many sites are happy about providing their visitors with an opportunity to become distracted on somebody else’s site. Even worse, the results haven’t typically been sufficiently up to date due to delays in search engine crawling and indexing. Then there are those intrusive ads… not always compatible with a site’s mission.

Google’s Site Search Solution

Google, through it’s Google Site Search, a variant on the Google Custom Search Engine, has solved each of these problems. Google allows a site to create a personalized site specific search engine, integrating the search results into the website. No longer does a site have to fear losing precious visitors. Google’s near real time crawling and indexing introduced last year1 means that results in its main index are up to date for many sites – especially those like blogs which are frequently updated. If that isn’t enough to convince you, Google will index at least 10,000 pages from a site specifically for the purpose of the custom search engine (there are no guarantees that these pages will appear in Google’s main search index). And the ad conundrum? No problem. The “modal overlay”, which uses Google’s API2, displays search results without ads. Try this example

Google Custom Site Search Engine using AJAX – Try it!

to see the AJAX code in action. Unfortunately, AJAX is hard to track in Google Analytics – you’ll have to do custom programming to trigger an event Google Analytics can track. Google’s IFRAME site search solution displays results integrated in a site page and is available without ads for free for non-profits and as little as $1003 a year for commercial sites. Should you choose the free option with Ads, Google will share the proceeds with you – softening the blow of losing a few visitors. Just sign up for the AdSense program and associate it to your custom search engine. If you do elect to display Google AdWords on your site, you should consider identifying competitors whose ads you don’t want to appear (In AdSense, choose AdSense Setup -> Competitive Ad Filter -> AdSense for Search). But it gets better. If you host the search results on your site via an IFRAME,

integration with Google Analytics will allow you to track not only how many visitors use your site search, but what keywords they used and where they went (note: the default option Host the result on a Google page won’t work with Google Analytics!). Powerful, no? It is worth noting that Google offers extensive customization options for a site’s internal search engine – what I’ve shown in this article only scratches the surface of what is possible.

WordPress’ Anemic Built in Search

Bloggers using WordPress‘ platform have probably noted that WordPress’ built in search function is no match for Google’s finely tuned algorithms. Follow Lorelle’s advice and replace it. You can simply replace an existing search box with Google’s AJAX API overlay search box. Alternatively, use the standard Google search box and display results on a dedicated blog page.

  1. Create a page (not a post) to host the search results. You will probably want to disable comments and track backs for this page. If your results will include AdWords ads on the right of the search results (you could alternatively place them at the top and bottom of the search results if your primary goal is to earn AdSense revenue), make sure the page width available for Google search results is sufficient – you may need to create a search results specific page template which removes excess side bars. In this case, just copy an existing page template as a new file. Make the required modifications and associate this template to your new search results page. On the search results page, you’ll need to define a title such as “Your search results” and paste Google’s results JavaScript code. You’ll probably want to include the search box as well (both above and below the results) so visitors can refine their search without having to use the back button.
  2. Some themes automatically list pages all pages in a navigation area. In this case, modify your theme to exclude the search results page.
  3. Once the page is defined, locate the current search box code in your theme. Replace it with Google’s Custom Search Engine search box. The IFRAME search box above demonstrates this integration in action.

Add Site Search tracking to Google Analytics.

In November 2007 Google announced the addition of site search tracking in Google Analytics. The Site Search tracking will appear in the menu Content -> Site Search – but you need to enable site search tracking for the profile in your Google Analytics Account. Just turn site search tracking on and specify the query keywords parameter – “q” for Google searches. You’re done!

Keep in mind that Google Analytics can only track site search hosted on your site. If you choose the AJAX implementation of Google’s site search, you will have to do custom programming to trigger a Google Analytics tracking event.

Web Analytics, meet Search Analytics

Looking for ideas on how to best interpret and act on your web site’s internal search data? Lou Rosenfeld (of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web fame) and Rich Wiggins are busy writing what will most likely be the definite book on Site Search analysis. In the meantime, check out their site search analytics blog and the related Yahoo! Site Search Analytics discussion group.

Enterprise site search solutions, some for free

The free open source search engine, htdig, may be just the solution for organizations looking for complete control and transparency over their internal site search. Yahoo! also offers a no-charge enterprise search solution, the IBM OmniFind Yahoo! Edition. This showcase of IBM’s technology will index up to 500,000 documents. Naturally the other major search engines also supply Enterprise search solutions: Google offers its Google Search Appliance and Microsoft, through a recent acquisition, offers Fast Enterprise Search.

Site Search and SEO

SEO involves on-page, on-site and off-site factors. On-page and on-site factors will impact internal search performance. A site which is poorly optimized for search engine visibility will under perform in internal search as well.

Still have questions about site search implementation and measurement? Consider engaging a SEO Consultant.

1 http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/minty-fresh-indexing/
2 AJAX Web Search Examples
3 Actual amount depends on query volume and number of pages indexed

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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