Sunday, September 24, 2006

Internal Search: The Value In Monitoring Your "No Results" Keywords

We all know that search engines (like Google, Yahoo! and MSN Search) are very helpful in bringing visitors to your site. But what about internal search engines? How valuable are they when it comes to the success of your online business? Well, they can be just as valuable (if not more) because they actually help bring visitors to your shopping cart.

Whenever a visitor types in a keyword search into your homepage's internal search box, that visitor is essentially telling you, "I am interested in finding this product, I want to learn more about it, and I may even want to buy it!" But if your internal search tool can't provide the visitor with what they are looking for, then you may have just lost a sale. Beyond losing a sale, you may have also lost a potential loyal customer who (with a good first time experience to your site) might have purchased from you again in the future.

So how does all of this internal search stuff relate to web analytics?

Well, in order to build a successful internal search program for your visitors, you need to understand whether or not your visitors are able to find what they were searching for.

I recently did some contract work for a large online electronics business and discovered some disturbing information regarding their internal search results. When using the company's overlay tool from their web analytics vendor, I found that the "go" button on their internal search box was the #1 most clicked link when visitors reached their home page. That's the great news. The bad news was that nobody really paid attention as to what happened after the visitor typed in a search keyword and clicked "go".

After digging into their reports a bit deeper, I found that of all the visitors who attempted to run an internal search, 33% of them reached a "No Results" page. I probably don't have to tell you this, but 1 out of every 3 searches resulting in a "No Results" page just doesn't cut it when trying to build a positive visitor web experience. This percentage is simply too high to ignore.....especially when one of the company's key KPIs (key performance indicators) is to increase their sales conversion percentage.

So how could this be???

After looking at the top search keywords that led to a "No Results" page (one of the reports in their analytics tool), I noticed some surprises. High up in the list of "No Results" were keywords for very popular products that the company definitely had in stock. But for some reason when the visitor searched for those particular products, they were directed to a "No Results" page. What we discovered was that the visitor would only reach a "No Results" page when they typed in the keyword and hit the "Enter" or the "Return" button on their keyboard. However, if they typed in the keyword and hit the "go" button, they were directed to the proper product page. Luckily for us, were able to trace this occurrence to a problem within the way the search tool was directing visitors and we were able to knock those popular keywords off of the "No Results" list.

A second problem we encountered when looking at the top keywords that led to a "No Results" page, was that visitors were searching for products that we no longer carried or sold. To resolve this issue, we had our web developers set up special pages (called splash pages) that provided a simple explanation to the visitor. We also provided additional links so that the client could find similar products or even reach our support team if they had additional questions. By sending the visitor to a splash page instead of a "No Results" page, we were able to dramatically cut down our chances of losing the visitor entirely. At the same time, we increased our chances of a visitor viewing other products and possibly buying.

A third problem we found from looking at the "No Results" keywords report, was that visitors were searching for products that they read about in recent articles (press releases, etc). This was great for our marketing department but bad for the visitor because we realized that some of those product pages hadn't been launched yet on our web site. The solution, obviously, was to get those product pages launched as quickly as possible so that visitors could gather the information they needed. This problem turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it helped to bring a closer relationship between the marketing PR department and the web development group.

The final problem I noticed was that we had an enterprise online company using a non enterprise internal search product. Many of the great features that one could find in a more expensive product were difficult to get at using the company's current solution. It took more time to get issues resolved from this smaller internal search vendor. And as we all know, time is money. With the amount of unique visitor traffic that this online business received each month, it would of made sense to spend the extra money with an internal search vendor that mainly deals with enterprise sized web sites.

In the end, if it wasn't for web analytics, these problems would have never been discovered. With this valuable information in hand, I was able to work with a team and turn this data into actionable information that led to positive results. We successfully "knocked out" the top 5 internal search keywords that led to a "No results" page. These 5 search keywords alone made up 80% of all the unsuccessful searched terms. With a web site that generates between 4 and 6 million unique visits a month, you can see how valuable it was to optimize our internal search results. Not only did we create a more enjoyable web experience for the visitor by "cleaning up" our internal search, but we were able to turn more browsers into buyers and save the company thousands of dollars in potential lost revenue!

If you have internal search on your web site, make sure that somebody is constantly monitoring the percentage of your internal searches that lead to a "No Results" page. Monitoring and tweaking your internal search results can earn you immediate rewards!