When you want to find something on the internet, where do you go? The ever-ubiquitous Google, of course. What would our internet-surfing experience be without search? It is by an enormous distance the primary means of web-navigation that we choose to use.
And don’t think that search is just for search engines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider sites such as Amazon and eBay – nay, consider almost any site you visit that you didn’t get to from a search engine results page (SERP). Unless what you are looking for is immediately obvious, you will almost immediately delve into search mode.
And with good reason – we are used to Google presenting us with highly relevant search results. Why drill down through three layers of categories and subcategories when you can find what you want with a few taps on the keyboard and a mouse click?
Onsite Search is THE Prominent Navigation Aid
You don’t have to look far for proof of how prominent a navigational aid onsite search is. This article from A List Apart includes an example of a site where 18.57% of all visits used onsite search. The conclusion with respect to onsite search volume was as follows:
Anything more than say 5% makes internal site search one of the most used navigational aids on your website.
In that article, the example site’s onsite search use volume is 400% greater than what would be considered high-usage. But don’t just take my word for it – you will soon be seeing how often your site’s search box is used. It could well change the way you consider your site’s structure.
But that’s not all. Here’s the real kicker – you actually want your visitors to prefer searching over traditional navigational elements. The more people that search, the better you can read their minds. More on that later.
WordPress Didn’t Get the Memo
Despite the above, there is in fact one good reason for you not to go into search mode on most WordPress sites – the standard WordPress search engine is truly awful. But that’s not even the worst of it. The real problem is that 99.99% of people are not aware of that fact. They innocently wander onto a WordPress website, type in their search query, then bounce straight off the site due to poorly-matched search results.
The fact is that no one should use the standard WordPress search engine on their site – better to have no search option at all. A searcher is better off having to work through a navigation bar or menu than quickly get frustrated by poor search results. If any given SERP does not reflect the most relevant content available on your site, the game is already lost.
So what exactly is so bad about WordPress’ search engine that makes its complete absence more favorable than its presence? Let’s start with the worst offense, which was alluded to in the previous paragraph. Search results are returned by date, not by relevance. We couldn’t imagine a more heinous crime in the world of search.
Let’s consider an example. Say you ran a technology blog and wrote an article on the most anticipated smartphones of 2012 back in December 2011. If someone types in the search query “smartphones” on your website, you are going to expect that post to rank pretty highly. Unfortunately, that may well not be the case with WordPress search. If you have in any way shape or form mentioned smartphones in any posts after the publish date of the feature article, they will usurp it in the SERP. You may have just mentioned smartphones in passing, but it doesn’t matter – the page will rank higher because it was published more recently.
Tip of the Iceberg
But that’s only the beginning. Here are three more reasons why WordPress search is so bad:
- Default excerpts are shown. Unless the content of the post is made absolutely clear by the title or excerpt, it is up to the searcher to guess as to whether or not the page may be relevant to them.
- Search terms are not shown in bold. A searcher has to read through the whole excerpt to find their search term (if it actually appears in the excerpt), rather than simply scanning for the words that stand out.
- There is no misspelling correction functionality. Searchers are always in a hurry – if they don’t see what they expect in the SERP, they are more likely to bounce off the site than check their spelling.
With all of the above in mind, there is a question that begs to be asked at this stage – why do so many WordPress website owners and developers not realize how bad the search feature is and do something about it? There are two likely answers:
- They simply don’t realize, or
- They do realize, but they don’t care enough to do something about it.
Both answers are completely unacceptable to any WordPress user who cares about usability and engagement on any level (that should be all of you, folks).
What is the Solution?
So we have now discussed at length what is so wrong with the WordPress search engine – it’s about time we discussed how it’s done, right?
Whilst there is no such thing as an agreed search engine implementation best-use policy, that is most likely because you only have to look to one site to understand how it should be done. Even if Google had some severe shortcomings, you would probably still simulate its functions anyway, to keep in line with user expectation. If a user feels like they are searching your site through Google (or if they are), you are presenting them with the best possible onsite search solution.
There were four reasons listed above as to why WordPress search is so bad, so those foibles clearly need to be reversed. But in addition to those factors, the following should also be borne in mind:
- Search boxes should be placed in the top of the screen (ideally in the horizontal navigation element, if your site has one). That is where people expect to see it. It shouldn’t be buried in the sidebar, or at the bottom of the screen.
- The search box should be just that – a box. Advanced search features should be offered only if absolutely necessary or beneficial to the user experience.
- The relevant button should be labelled “Search”, rather than “Go”, or any other word. It may sound petty, but the aim is to make your site as useable as possible – not look to throw them a curveball. You don’t “go” Google – you “search” it.
- The search engine should not distinguish between upper and lower case characters.
- The search keyword should be clearly displayed at the top of the SERP.
- The search engine should recognize misspellings and offer corrections when possible.
- The SERP should return 10 results.
- The SERP should offer alternative search suggestions when no results are returned. This is an absolute must, unless you want to see visitors bouncing off your SERP in vast numbers.
So now you know what you should be looking for, where do we find it?
Solutions for Perfect WordPress Search
There are quite a few options to consider when seeking to improve the standard WordPress search engine, but in our opinion, there are just two options that stand above the competition. Furthermore, you can actually get good results at no cost, so there really is no excuse for sticking with the default option.
The first port of call is a Relevanssi – a freemium WordPress plugin. Its rating of 4½ stars on the WordPress Plugin Repository combined with the fact that it is actively supported (it was most recently updated in November 2011) highlights it as an excellent option for the budget-conscious WordPress user.
Its premium version adds a few additional features but a good argument could be put forward for the free version being far too feature-packed. Unless you are running a particularly large site, Relevanssi should suit your purposes well.
Google Custom Search
There is just one problem with Relevanssi – it isn’t Google.
If you are looking for your visitors to feel right at home when they carry out a search on your site, Google Custom Search is the way forward. However, you will want to put a minimum of $100 per year aside for this option. Although there is a free version, it includes AdSense advertisements. Unless you do do not value the traffic that hits your site, you will want to make sure they have no excuse for leaving (such as a distracting advert).
For a detailed guide on how to set up Google Custom Search for your WordPress site, click here. There was once a functional plugin in the WordPress repository that carried out the background work for you, but it is no longer supported. However, if you are a WPMU DEV member, there is such a plugin available.
Just one other thing – the pages in your site that you wish to return in the SERPs must be indexed by Google.
Visitor Analysis’ Secret Weapon
There is now just one more vital piece to the puzzle that you would be crazy not to put in place at this juncture. Not only should you ensure that there is a solid search engine in place on your site, you should also be tracking searches. There is simply no more valuable resource in terms of determining user intent. Or to put it a more hyperbolic manner, you can read your visitors’ minds.
The potential applications of the wealth of knowledge you can gain from tracking visitor searches are numerous. Consider these two examples:
- Analyzing popular search terms and the contents of the resultant SERPs would allow you to spot and fill “content gaps” on your site. For example, if “blue widgets” was a popular search term, but you had no page or section on your site covering blue widgets, it would seem that such a page or section is called for.
- For search terms specific to particular areas of your site, you could verify that searchers are in fact arriving on the intended page.
The above examples only scratch the surface of what is possible with onsite search analysis.
The Psychology of Search
Before we reveal how you can effectively track user queries, it is important you have a sound understanding of the fundamentals of search query intent.
There are three broad “types” of search query, the concepts of which were outlined in “A Taxonomy of Web Search” – a report written by Dr. Andrei Broder (formally of Altavista, and now a Research Fellow and Vice President of Emerging Search Technology for Yahoo!). If you hadn’t figured it out by now, we are talking about an extremely intelligent individual.
Let’s take a look at the three types of search query, as described in Broder’s study:
- Navigational. The immediate intent is to reach a particular site.
- Informational. The intent is to acquire some information assumed to be present on one or more web pages.
- Transactional. The intent is to perform some web-mediated activity.
Broder goes on to stress that “intent can[not] be inferred with any certitude from the query”. However, sound interpretation of good sample sizes, combined with the knowledge as to what query type the site in question is best catered to, can give you a relatively accurate idea of the types of query you are dealing with.
What is the relevance of this to you? Simple – effective onsite search analysis can result in increased income. For instance, if you were to discover that a popular transactional-type search is being sent to a content-heavy, non product-related page, you would know that changes are required to the structure of your site.
You Probably Already Have Onsite Search Analytics
It is possible to set up detailed tracking of visitor search terms with Google Analytics. In order to set your website up for tracking, follow this simple step by step guide. If you are not a user of Google Analytics, your chosen analytics provider may offer similar functionality.
When it comes to analyzing search queries via Google Analytics, you can expect a similar format to that of your general site analytics. The only difference is that the data you have in front of you is far more valuable. You now have an insight not only into what your visitor wants, but whether or not they are satisfied by your site’s response to their search query.
If you do not use Google Analytics, you can install the Search Meter plugin. However, it is important to note that the features of Search Meter are extremely basic when compared against Google Analytics. It really doesn’t compare in terms of functionality.
Onsite Search Analysis 101
In terms of understanding the intricacies of onsite search analysis, it is not just a case of diving in and hoping to get some use out of the data. Although there will be some extremely useful conclusions that you can immediately draw, if you want to make the most of the data, we recommend two resources that could be considered a comprehensive resource:
- Internal Site Search Analysis: Simple, Effective, Life Altering! (A List Apart)
- Getting the Best From On-Site Search on your Website (SEOmoz)
Everything you need to know about onsite search analysis best practice can be found in the articles above. You may notice that both of those articles were produced in back in 2009. Despite the age gap, the advice contained within is as relevant as ever. The age of those valuable resources demonstrates how largely ignored this vital part of visitor analysis is.