Tracking site search with Google Analytics

What would you say if I told you that Google Analytics can tell you exactly what visitors on your site are looking for, and whether they’re finding it, and that you can turn on this feature in just 2 minutes, with no technical skills required?

You might say I might sound like a used car salesperson (and maybe I do), but it’s true. The feature is site search tracking, and it’s the easiest, most powerful feature in Google Analytics that you’re probably not using. That’s because it’s buried in the settings, but once you know it’s there, it’s incredibly easy to activate. It’s like a well-kept secret, but really, it shouldn’t be, because it’s so useful.

(I’m talking mostly about Google Analytics today. But if you use a different web analytics package, it probably includes a similar, equally valuable feature, and it’s worth looking into how to activate it.)

One of the most common questions I hear about analytics is “what do my visitors want?”  This is a tricky question to answer – we can make educated guesses based on the pages they visit, or perhaps the keywords that they arrive from on search engines.  But just because they view a page doesn’t mean it contained the information they needed, and most of your search visitors are probably coming from branded terms. We can’t know for sure what visitors want, unless they tell us.

Happily, some of your visitors are telling you exactly what they want – when they type it into the search box on your site. (To be clear, I mean your site’s internal search – not the keyword someone searches on Google that brings you to your site.) It’s also easy to capture this information in your analytics tool, for almost any site search tool that you’re using.

First, we assume that your site has a site search, and that it’s configured well. If not, Marissa has some good tips for how to find a site search tool that works for you.

In Google Analytics, just go into your profile settings, and edit them.  There’s an option for site search: to turn it on, turn it off, and configure it.

Configuring site search tracking is as easy as doing a search on your site – it doesn’t matter what you search for – and looking at the name of the search parameter in the resulting URL.  For example, if the URL of the page after you search is, then your search parameter is s.  If your URL is, then your search parameter is SearchText.  Just drop that search parameter into your Google Analytics settings, and you’re done.

It’s really that easy.  In fact, if you’re a Google Analytics administrator, you should go do it now. Go ahead. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Ok, so what do you get from doing this?  Different analytics tools will give you different data, but all will give you a wealth of information that you didn’t have before.  In Google Analytics, you can now answer questions like:

  • What are visitors searching for on my site?
  • How many of my visitors are searching? (Some people will search no matter how good your IA is – but if too many people are searching, it could mean they’re having trouble navigating your site.)
  • What pages are visitors most likely to search from? (Lots of people will search from the homepage – but if they are searching in great numbers from another page, that’s a clue that they’re looking for something on that page, and not finding it.)
  • What pages are visitors most likely to visit after searching? (Ask yourself: do these pages match up with the search terms they used?)
  • After visitors search, how likely are they to leave the site? How many more pages are they likely to visit? (Are they especially likely to leave after certain types of searches?)
  • For what search terms is the visitor likely to immediately refine their search? How many times do they refine it?

Put this together, and you’ve got a wealth of information about the usability of your site, and about your users’ interests. Here are just a few examples (based on real things I’ve seen) of what you might learn:

  • Hundreds of people are searching for topic X, which is buried far down in your site. You had no idea so many people were interested in it, so you make it more prominent.
  • It’s June, and you’re already seeing searches for your conference that happens in October – and they’re finding information from last year’s conference. Time to update your content…
  • Every month, your number one site search term is “search”… which happens to be the default text in your search box.  Your users are confused about how to use the site search. (You would be surprised how often this is true.)
  • People are looking for one of your programs, but using a phrase that you never use and didn’t expect them to use. They’re not finding it, and leaving the site instead. There’s a good insight for your site search and your SEO…

Have I convinced you that site search analytics is magic? If you’ve just turned it on, or if you’ve had it for a while but haven’t paid attention to it, you may find that it’s your new best friend.


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