Why publishers should pay more attention to on-site search

On-site search is an often overlooked area of the user experience. Learn how to leverage it.

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You’ve been following all the rules – from how to best lure new readers to your site to which stories to share with them once they’re there. But have you taken user friendliness into account for those searching for something specific on your news/media site?

On-site search is an often overlooked area of the user experience (why this is the case, I’m unsure, other than the fact that there likely seem to be “larger fish to fry”). That’s why I recently sat down with Ophélie Lechat, head of content for SitePoint, a go-to publication for Web developers, to get her take on how important on-site search is to publishers and what you can do to further leverage the data it collects.

Lechat shares, “On-site search lets us get into the minds of our visitors and helps us fill in the gaps where we’re not providing exactly the right kind of content.” She sees high value in the readers who use on-site search as well. “Visitors who use site search tend to view five times more pages than visitors who don’t, and they spend six minutes longer on our site.” Here, we explore a few ways to further leverage on-site search.

Identify trends before your competitors

Google Trends only lets you get so deep, but on-site search (and search-not-founds, in particular) can lead you to topics that are even more relevant to your audience. Lechat comments on the power of search, “In our field (Web development), there are often topics that are very popular but not necessarily getting very much press or social media love – older frameworks that are well-ingrained in enterprise systems, programming languages that are massively useful in maintaining existing apps but aren’t necessarily being used at new companies.”

SitePoint’s team was able to get ahead of the curve in covering the release of PHP 7 in late 2015. Web developers, anxious to find information about it in advance of the launch, were searching for it, so one of SitePoint’s lead writers gained access to preview PHP 7 and wrote a series of articles about it. Those articles received little traffic initially, but one ended up ranking #1 on Google when the latest version of PHP released officially. “They’ve been strong traffic drivers ever since. We often land in the top spot for Google News results when search volume peaks too,” adds Lechat.

Don’t over-edit or replace your evergreen content

Serving your audience relevant, of-the-moment content and breaking news will always be important, but Lechat suggests that maintaining on-site (and off-site) searchability of older articles that readers may have a reason to search for later is just as important. She comments, “The ‘new hotness’ is fun to read about, but evergreen content has been much more useful to our readers. That includes keeping old versions of articles available to our readers: some developers need to use an older version of a product, and it’s most helpful to them if we don’t replace older content with up-to-the-minute information.”  

Re-direct traffic using what you’ve learned from on-site search

If an older post is gaining traffic because of on-site search tied to a current event or announcement, publishers can use it to their advantage and redirect those readers to more accurate information when applicable. “We’ve used on-site search to redirect traffic from an obsolete post to a more accurate, relevant one. Keeping a very close eye on our search traffic means we can make on-the-spot decisions that both boost traffic and help our readers,” says Lechat.

Be picky when choosing an on-site search tool

There are dozens of options out there and like with any other site optimization tool, it helps to be choosy. Google Custom Search Engine is, of course, one of the more popular ones out there but Hawk Search, Nextopia and SLI Systems site search tools are all worth looking into as well. I’ve partnered with Swiftype, a popular choice for publishers given the tool’s ample bells and whistles which help readers quickly find the content they’re looking for. It’s really about finding the best fit for your business type. (For example, Hawk Search is favored by a lot of online retailers given its filtering/sorting capabilities.)

Also, don’t be surprised if how your readers/customers search changes. Lechat comments, “Over the years, I’ve noticed search queries using more natural language. For example, using a question as a search term or searching for specific content types, not just topics.”

For more on-site-search best practices, check out Graham Charlton’s article on Econsultancy. The piece focuses on e-commerce businesses, but you can apply the learnings to a range of site types.

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