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In the day and age of Google, site search is at best an afterthought, or worse, a forgotten assumption. All too often site search goes ignored and untended. But, we’ve known for a long time that site search is critical. In fact, Jakob Nielsen wrote about its importance back in 1997:
Our usability studies show that more than half of all users are search-dominant, about a fifth of the users are link-dominant, and the rest exhibit mixed behavior. The search-dominant users will usually go straight for the search button when they enter a website: they are not interested in looking around the site; they are task-focused and want to find specific information as fast as possible.
Nielsen’s comments are based on usability research that was done many years ago. Since that time, Google has risen to search dominance. Google is the de facto homepage of the internet and has taught users to expect good results from searches. Google has set the search bar high. With such elevated expectations, how do you provide effective in-site search results? There’s five key principles to follow to optimize your in-site search. An important note, these are principles for site search, not principles for general SEO, which is an entirely different topic.
  1. Know your search engine The search engine you’re using for your website can make a significant difference on the search experience. You need to know how your search engine indexes and ranks your content. Do you have a classic search indexer that crawls your website and indexes the content based on the pages and page structure of your site? Or do you have a CMS that provides a built in search, which crawls solely your content within the CMS database? Primacy has worked with both mechanisms for site content indexing. And the latter, where you have a CMS that provides a built in search, can lead to frustration and poor search results if you don’t understand how it works and if you don’t understand how to make it smarter at indexing and ranking content. Additionally, search engines built into CMS platforms are getting more sophisticated and are offering ways for you to “tag” your site content and promote certain content to the top of search results based on key words. Make sure you understand how your site search works, and how it can be configured to produce better results. Another thing to keep in mind, especially with CMS bundled search engines, is that Word and PDF documents are not always indexed out of the box. If you have a large number of documents and PDFs that need to be searchable, make sure they are getting indexed. For PDF documents in particular, you’ll generally need to have the Adobe PDF iFilter installed on your web server and your site search implemented to use it. Even Word documents or Excel spreadsheets may be going unindexed, and you’ll need to verify that they’re included.
  2. Know how people are searching Are you using Google Analytics or Universal Analytics from Google? If so, have you entered your Site Search Settings? This will give you specific Site Search reports, which will give you a window into what people are searching for and if they’re finding the content they need. These reports will show you how frequently users are searching on your site, where users are starting their searches, and if they are finding what they need. And if you are not using Google Analytics, get to know the features your web site’s analytics package offers. Many CMS platforms offer built in reports and analytics around site search. Make sure your CMS has been setup properly so that you have access to this information and have a window into how visitors are using your site.
  3. Provide good user experience Don’t leave the UX out of your search experience. For instance, make the site search box is available on every page of your site. When someone hits or taps “enter” while in the search box, make sure their search query gets submitted. Have your search provide auto-complete and type ahead suggestions, this helps cut down on misspellings and will help get visitors to results faster. Allow users to quickly and easily refine search results using facets based on your site tagging taxonomy. Make sure your search takes misspellings and acronyms into account, and that highly specific and specialized terminology is searchable using everyday language. For instance, with our health care clients, this has meant ensuring that “cardiovascular” is found when someone searches for “heart” or “heart attack”. Use Rich Snippets in your site content and tags. Public search engines use Rich Snippets to apply microformat and microdata tags to your content. Your site search should do this, too. The Rich Snippet content will also appear, or should appear, in your search results, helping to make the results that much more meaningful and useful.
  4. Promote and hide pages This may seem counter intuitive, but make sure you have the ability to hide a page from your site search. You should have the ability to inject a “NOINDEX” tag into your page, and your local site search needs to respect it. Google will of course abide by this tag as well as other major search engines.Make sure that you can promote pages and have them appear close to the top of search results based on keywords you specify. Many CMS platforms have built in search capability that allows you to do this, ensure you understand how it works and how to use it.
  5. When all else fails, use Google Site Search Only use Google Site Search as a last resort. By using Google Site Search, you are ceding control to Google for indexing and searching your site. Generally this is ok, but is something to be aware of. Google is only going to index your site every couple days. This means that new content may take days to appear and updates to content may be delayed. That influences search results. When you have a local search solution, any new or updated content is often searchable within hours or even minutes of it being added to the site.
Pay attention to your site search.  It’s the most predominate way people will browse and look for content on your site. Make sure you help them get to the information they need and leave them with a positive impression of your website.