Getting the Most of Your Search
by Dr. Shaun Ryan

Site search is an extremely important component of any website 
that has more than a few hundred pages. A recent Jupiter survey 
(http://www.internetretailer.com/dailyNews.asp?id=8615) found 
that a third of all people look to site search first. 
Furthermore, half the people using navigation will use search if 
they can't find what they want.

With so many of your visitors expecting a site search, it is 
important to have this functionality and to ensure the quality 
of your search results is as high as it can be. A good search 
will significantly increase the effectiveness of your site. 

Implementing Site Search

A lot of effort goes into building an effective site search. 
There are many options and many tools at your disposal. For an 
excellent overview see the SearchTools 
(http://www.searchtools.com) site. Fortunately, a lot of the 
work you do to make your site easy to index for the major search 
engines will also make it easier for you to build your own site 
search. One way to make this process a lot easier is to outsource 
the entire process to someone like S.L.I. Systems 
(http://www.sli-systems.com). 

Not only is search an important means of helping your visitors, 
it is also a source of extremely valuable information. Your 
visitors are telling you something when they search.

Search Logs Contain Practical, Valuable Information

You can collect a lot of valuable information by looking at the 
queries that people type into your search box. The search box 
is like a survey form. Every time someone types something into 
that box they are saying, "This is what I expect to find on your
site". This useful information is often ignored.

Source of Keywords

For starters, by looking at the queries your visitors are using 
you begin to build an understanding of the language your 
customers use. You'll find that the search terms used are as 
varied as the individuals who visit your sites. For example, one 
of our customers sells a writable DVD drive 
(http://www.pcrush.com/prodspec.asp?itemno=32644&ln=1).  Here 
are some of the search terms that are used to find this product:

       drx500ul 
       32644
       drx
       drx 500ul
       500ul
       sony drx500ul
       sony dvd burner
       drx-500
       sony dvd
       drx500
       drx-500ul
       sony drx500ul dvd rw -rw
       sony drx
       and many more

You'll notice the model numbers may contain spaces, hyphens, be 
closed up or they may be just a partial number. Some of our 
customers have hundreds of thousands of unique search terms 
every month.

This list of search terms is a great source of keywords for your 
search engine optimization efforts. If your visitors are using 
these search terms on your site they will be using similar 
search terms on the Internet search engines and you should try 
to make sure your pages rank well for those terms.

Look at the Clicks Too

Don't just look at the search terms. Look also at the search 
results people are clicking on and identify which are the most 
popular. This information can be used to improve your 
navigation. If a page is a popular search result you should make 
it easy to navigate to.

Searches with Poor Results

By analyzing clicks on search results you can identify the 
search terms that your site has poor results for. If a search 
term receives a lot of queries which are not followed by clicks 
on results then it has poor results. The list of poor search 
results is extremely valuable. It shows you where your site is 
not meeting your visitors' expectations.

You may have relevant content for some of these search terms. In 
that case, all you need to do is include the search terms that 
people are using on the relevant pages. Those pages should come 
up in the search results.

Marketing Information

The search terms with poor results are also an excellent source 
of marketing information. These terms may indicate products that 
you should consider stocking. Or they may indicate content that 
you should include on your site. For example you may see people 
searching for your "returns policy". This indicates you should 
put your returns policy on your site.

Improving Search Quality

There are a number of ways to measure the overall relevance of 
your search results by analyzing your search logs. If you 
measure and track these metrics you can see the effect of any 
changes you make to your search. An example of one of the 
metrics we use at S.L.I. Systems is the Average Rank, which 
measures how far on average people go down the search results. 
If your search results are good then the top results will 
satisfy most of the queries and the Average Rank will be low. 

The first site to use our search technology, Snap.com saw their 
Average Rank improve from 12 to 4 over two years.

How Do I Analyze my Search Logs?

Most good search software comes with some limited reporting that 
will at least give you a report on the top search queries and 
top search results. So you should begin by finding out what you 
already have. 

For more comprehensive reports you could analyze your search 
logs yourself. You will probably need to change your search 
logging to log all the necessary information. Or you can 
subscribe to a service such as S.L.I. Systems' Learning Search. 
This service includes a hosted site search that learns from user 
behavior and continuously improves the relevance of the search 
results. You also receive daily reports containing your key 
search statistics and you have access to expert search analysts. 
Ask about the month's free trial that lets you see the benefits 
before you make any commitment.

In any case be aware of the valuable information that is 
contained in your search logs. It can help you improve your 
business.


================================================================
Shaun Ryan is CEO of S.L.I. Systems (http://www.sli-systems.com/), 
Inc specialists in site search. S.L.I.'s Learning Search service 
includes a hosted site search and comprehensive search reporting 
and analysis. S.L.I.'s customers include NBC.com, VERITAS software, 
Etronics.com and pcRush. Shaun holds a PhD in Artificial 
Intelligence from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
================================================================