Internal search – I’m paying attention – are you?

Back in November 2011, we re-launched the Central Bedfordshire Council website search engine to Zoom. It is not expensive, it does not have a flash look to it (though it can do!), but it does one thing…the job. That is, if you know how to make your internal search engine work for you.

I was recommended a book specialising in internal search – Search Analytics for your Site: Conversations with your Customers by Louis Rosenfeld. This book walks you through the well of knowledge you have at your fingertips from the searches your customers are performing.

It explains how to analyse the results and make the most from them. You can then use this knowledge to amend your page structure / content in order that the most relevant pages are coming up in the search. Do you know what the most popular search is on YOUR website? Do you know how many customers are using your website search engine?

I set to find that out and make improvements based on this knowledge.

In 2012, 143 unique search terms represented 20% of the most popular searches. Council tax was top with 2.48% followed by jobs at 1.27% and libraries at 0.41%.

I did two things with this information:

  1. I tested our search to make sure the right page was coming up in position 1 – if it wasn’t I fixed the content to ensure the right page came up
  2. I changed our navigation so customers did not need to search for these key phrases

Change based on solid customer insight

Fast forward to 2014 stats. Council tax is still a popular term to search for but it is dropped to position 4 and there were 75% LESS customers searching for it. The top searched term ‘Planning’ had just 0.54% of total searches performed on the site.

256 unique search terms now represent 20% of the most popular searches. We don’t have a huge peak at the top of the chain with a large number of customers unable to find key information.

We also do not have the same reliance on search as we have constantly tweaked our navigation to improve the user experience.

A large number still choose to use search as a quick way to navigation around the site. However, I am ok with that. It was the previous reliance on search, which I was not happy with.

We get 65% of our traffic via Google searches so there is a lot less reliance on our internal search these days. However, I find it invaluable to check search terms every week to see what our customers are looking for and then plugging gaps in website content and / or amending the navigation.

I have also been lucky enough to get a few top tips along the way from the author of the book, Louis Rosenfeld via Twitter and email. Louis – as ever, I couldn’t have done it without your wise words!

If you’d like to know more about what I have done over the past few years on our search engine, then watch my Brighton SEO talk – An untapped resource for optimising your website.

Thanks

Alan

Google broke our shop window

Your website home page is your shop window – remember that old chestnut?

Get it on the home page….

It must be on the home page….

Can we get a link from the home page….

Home page, home page…what happened to you?

The shop window has been shattered. Google came along with a huge breeze block and smashed it to bits when you weren’t looking.

Actually that’s not true, we’ve been watching our home page slowly get smashed in by Google for years. Which is fine with me! Remember the days of council home pages with 200+ links (some still have them!)?

It’s why it gets rolled out at conference after conference – Google is the new home page. Well that…and saying ‘agile’ even if you don’t have the first clue what it means. Like the way I managed to get that into this blog post…agile, agile, agile.

I’ve just been analysing our website statistics for June. It is the usual suspects in the top 10 with the home page top. Interesting that last month, the page views for the home page dipped beneath 15%. It just brings me on a to a small point that we regularly face with service areas about the prominence of their content.

We (digital folk) get it…but try telling everyone else

It used to be a very regular request to get information flagged up on the home page as ‘customers cannot find our information’.

But this is a lot less relevant these days, given the statistic I’ve just quoted. Yes, it’s still the biggest hit page on the site, but its far from the be all of getting your content in front of the customer’s eyes.

Google is your home page

So true. We get over 65% of our traffic from Google search. If your content isn’t appearing on Google for the key phrases you are targeting, then the home page is certainly not going to come to your rescue.

This is exactly the message I will be taking to meet with one of our service areas tomorrow. To educate them to think beyond slapping a link on the home page / in the top level navigation, sitting back and patting themselves on the back.

How good is our navigation?

This brings me on to the navigation on the site. One area my stats cannot give me anything on is the use of the navigation. I know how many people go to the main Council tax page.

What I don’t know is how many made it to that page using the right hand navigation on the Central Bedfordshire Council website.

Bit.ly to the rescue!

On our website, I have replaced every direct link in our right hand navigation with a bit.ly link instead. I am going to leave this until September, then measure the impact for August. What I want to see is the volume of traffic for the page in the navigation, and measure how many came from using the navigation as a percentage of the overall traffic. I’m putting my cards on the table and guessing an average of 7%? That’s a finger in the air guess. That’s exactly what I want to remove – guess work. So, thanks bit.ly for coming to the rescue.

But why?

Curiosity? Actually do something with it?

Bit of both! No more seriously its to do something with it. It will further help banish the myth that the reason customers cannot find service area content is because they are not listed on the home page or in the navigation.

We built our navigation based on the most popular pages and matched this with the most popular search terms. So we pretty much know that it works, but we also see that the most popular search term is still ‘planning’ even though it’s clearly listed in the navigation. People love to search – both off and on site.

So I will use this to educate web editors and service owners when it comes to reviewing their website content. The number one test is finding it on Google.

Alan – there are easier ways to prove this!

I know. But, I have to fudge things a little due to the way our statistics package works as we’re not using Google Analytics. This does limit how easy it is to prove why I believe navigation is well behind Google when it comes to finding your content. But hey, I might be proven wrong come September!

Will we go for a search dominated site instead?

This was raised at Socitm’s building perfect council websites conference last week how big a risk it is to drop one of your routes to content e.g. navigation / A to Z (though I know A to Z traffic is down to <4%). Fylde is a powerful example of stripping back a home page and when I spoke to them the message was a very strong one – its working.

But to get there I’d want to see a more powerful search engine on our site which can look at multiple domains and also show best match results. Yes, all that can be done if you have the budget, the time and the love on internal search. Ok, I’ve at least got the love at the moment! Let’s wait and see about the rest.

Thanks for reading.

T: @alanfergs