Google Analytics (GA) may be introducing a lot of changes to the analytics workflow with GA4, but one kind of workflow that marketers can steadily rely upon is site search. I covered the site search feature in Google Analytics back in 2015. Site search remains one of the most valuable analyses for marketers who are responsible for a wide portfolio of products and services.
A Query by Any Other Name
Site search is when a customer types or speaks a query for the text box at the top of the page. The query returns a set of pages from within the site relevant to the query. The pages can be product pages, a Q&A page that answers some frequently asked questions or content that explains a step in a process, like a registration.
Site search is part of a customer experience that marketing teams sometimes overlook — marketers often worry about gaining customer attention through ads, videos and white papers, mainly because they are immediately visible to an advertising campaign. But site search unveils content that is not immediately seen when the customer is on site or on an app. Thus, it provides a continuance of the customer journey. Plus, people are familiar with that magnifying glass icon and the concept of searching online. Just one mention of Amazon as a search engine of products, and the value is clear.
The cost of ignoring it is becoming even clearer. At SMX, William Tseng, director of sales engineering at Lucidworks, noted in his presentation concerning site search that 30% of website visitors use site search, and 55% of those who search leave the site if they cannot find what they were searching for.
Site search has been a standard report among analytic solutions since the inception of analytics. For example, Adobe Analytics has a site search analysis report. So does Matomo, an analytics solution formerly known as Piwik. Site search is an expected feature in analytic solutions, much like a steering wheel is expected in a vehicle, be it a sports car or SUV.
But just as car features change with vehicle redesigns, a few alterations in site search among analytic solutions have appeared. Many analytics solutions have renamed site search reports as internal search reports to better reflect the use of analytics in apps as well as websites.
With the arrival of GA4, a few steps in setting up the site search reporting feature has changed. But with some attention to the steps, marketers can ensure that this standard reporting is not lost with the new version.
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You Start With Your Query
To add the search site reporting in GA4, you need to first locate your site’s query parameter. Every site has the same search term structure, so this is a standard step in every analytics solution. The parameter must be indicated in the site search setting for the analytics solution to “see” the query result page as part of a query, as opposed to treating the page as just another site or app page being accessed.
In Google Analytics, you go to the site search text window on your website, type a term, then look at the URL on the page. A query result appears in the URL window with additional characters.
The characters appear in the following format: the URL, along with a question mark, a random letter, and an equal sign. The letter before the equal sign ("=") is your website’s query parameter. So, a URL will look like this: https://yourwebsite.com/search?q=lightbulb
In Universal Analytics (UA) users had to input some information into GA manually — click a “Site Search Settings” button on the admin page — in GA4 it is a similar check process, save for an added step. The Enhanced Measurement must be selected before the site search is activated. (I explain Enhanced Measurement in this previous CMSWire post). Enhanced Measurement is accessed through the administration page under the Data Stream section.
Once the Enhanced Measurement is activated, users can click on the site search button. Click show advanced settings to add one of five types of parameters — q, s, search, query and keyword. There is a text box for additional parameters.
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How the Results Look in an Analysis
The results in GA4 appear in a slightly different format from those within Universal Analytics. UA provided an overview site search report that showed the overall metrics, plus three specific analyses — Usage, Search Terms and Page, which reveal the pages in which the search was conducted.
GA4 instead treats the results as an event-triggered dimension, called the search term dimension. The search term dimension allows the dimension to be added to several reports in the Explore report format, and then is analyzed. Think of it as metrics that are added to a report, rather than the three detailed reports in UA, and you’ll get the general idea.
To access it, users navigate to the Events sections and type search in the search box. A report displays the dimensions where events were recorded in the analytics solution. The user then clicks on the view_search_results to see reports showing events related to the queries. A metric called “search terms'' displays additional event metrics relative to the query terms people used in the site search text box. You can also experiment with using the search metric with the other Explore visualizations and reports, such as the Entrance and Exit reports. The Entrance and Exit reports reveal if people are exiting after the search event — in other words, it answers if your site is experiencing that dreaded 55% exit for customers not finding what they want.
If the search query parameters do not show, users can use Google Tag Manager to add the query parameter. Keyword auto-completes often are an example.
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What to Expect From a Site Search Analysis
The site search analysis has traditionally benefited managers by revealing what kinds of terms site visitors were looking for. Often these terms included products or services not mentioned on the site.
Generally, analysts examine the query term results to identify some potential term variants — “strawberries” as opposed to “strawberry” can lead to different hints from customers.
An analysis can also hint at products where the queried terms are different words but describe the same product — say “soda and pop” or “Kleenex and tissue.” You can gain insight if one word is being searched more frequently than another.
Analysts also review the number of queries that occur. Depending on the site content and query, the count can reveal if a number of people are searching for a product or service. The frequency of the terms indicate that the visitors really deemed that item as valuable. For example, if strawberries are sought more frequently than peaches or pears, then an analyst can infer that some level of demand for strawberries exists among the site or app visitors.
With this example in mind, the reason for the search volume can be a bit of a mystery — sometimes people query because they can not find a product or service immediately. This implies a product is hidden on a website or app, indicating that the product needs to be better highlighted on the site or app. Addressing it may mean revising the navigation or creating a dedicated page to the searched topic within the site. There can be a few ways to address this interest, the right one depending on how the website is laid out. But the one assumption that can be made is that customers want their queried information found quickly.
A good site search involves an understanding of the site and app. It leads to unified content management among a marketing team so that a team understands what content needs to be added or removed to raise the customer experience. A good analysis holds potential for better conversions and key performance indicators (KPIs), as well as better sales.
With site search, marketers gain a portion of the customer journey signal. Getting the analysis right will fuel the right decisions for planning content and planning customer experience.