What do your customers really want? That’s the key question for any business. And, it isn’t just a matter of getting at one single answer, it is the ability to adapt as that answer changes over time that separates a flash-in-the-pan start-up from a sustainable small business success.

One might reasonably think that asking your customers what they want is the best, most straight-forward way to determine how your business can best meet their needs. However, as discussed in The Brain in Small Business Marketing (a Tip post from last year), that is not the best approach because studies have shown that people don’t really know what they want and don’t accurately articulate it when asked. A better approach is observation of customers and how they actually interact with your company, your products and services, your staff, and even your website.

Strategies for each type of research differ, and you would need a tome to cover them all. (If you’re looking for that tome, try Ask: The Counterintuitive Online Formula to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want to Buy…Create a Mass of Raving Fans…and Take Any Business to the Next Level or Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.)

For this post, we’ll concentrate on one small piece of the puzzle: learning from how your customers search. This requires a two-fold approach of first looking at the search terms people use in search engine searches that direct them to your website; and second looking at how they search your website itself.


Search Engine Keyword Analysis

Some portion of the traffic to your website likely comes from search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing displaying a link to a page in your site in response to a keyword query from a user. (OK, you probably knew that.) Knowing the terms that direct people to your site tells you both what they are looking for when they get there and what the search engine analysis has determined your site offers. If those align with your actual site content, then you are in good shape. If they don’t, then you have a problem with your site content, your product offering, or both.

Google Webmaster Tools Search Console is a great resource for this information. With a free account you can view the top 2,000 queries that returned your site at least once in search results over the past year (or any shorter time period such as the quarter, month, or week). That’s just one of the many helpful things you can investigate using Webmaster Tools. Learn about them all in this Google tutorial.

Your own website logs are also a great source for this information. Most webhosting services provide reporting on website activity that includes the keywords used to reach your site. A good place to look for this is in your “cpanel.” While all services are different, a common tool provided is “awstats” which is often represented by a graph icon. Look at the “Search Keyphrases” and “Search Keywords” sections of the report to get a good idea of the searches funneling traffic to your site.


Acting On Search Engine Keyword Analysis

Once you know what sends people to your website, you need to know whether they are finding it. If you have a bunch of one-page visits referred by search engines, then you are clearly not meeting the needs of the people who reach your site that way—either because you don’t have what they want or because they can’t find it once they get there.

Unfortunately, there is no Google report that will tell you which it is. You will need to figure that one out for yourself. When you do, you have two (often complementary) courses of action:

  • You can work on your website content so that it no longer appears to search engines that you offer products and services that you do not; and so that searches for the products you do offer will return your website in the results list. This Search Engine Optimization (SEO) project is a major undertaking. A good place to start is Search Engine Land’s Guide To SEO.
  • If you don’t have what people are searching for, you can create a product or service offering that meets that need and promote it on the page to which the search engine is currently directing searchers. But, be careful when you do this that you don’t change the content that is causing your site to rank well. (This requires SEO skill too.)


Site Search Keyword Analysis

Knowing which keywords/phrases people use to find your site is only a small piece of using search to understand your customers. An even more important tool is analysis of the searches your customers perform while on your website.

While you might think that people primarily use site navigation and internal links to make their way around your website, research shows that this is not the case. 59% of people frequently use internal search, over 50% of people head straight to the search box when they arrive at a website, and 15% prefer searching a site themselves to using the site navigation menus.

That is actually good news for website owners, as the data generated from these searches is invaluable objective research into exactly what customers and potential customers want from your business. It is also a fantastic way to evaluate whether people on your website are finding what they want, or abandoning their searches (and your website) for lack of meaningful results.

Thus it is critically important that you meticulously track all internal search activity. Some key things to look for include:

  • The most common keywords/phrases used
  • Keywords/phrases that do not get any matches (or any relevant matches)
  • Keywords/phrases that lead to purchases (or other desired actions such as calls, chats, email inquiries, newsletter sign-ups, etc.)
  • Keywords/phrases that often result in a second or third search (because the initial results list does not include relevant content)
  • Searches that result in exits from your website


Acting On Site Search Keyword Analysis

Once you’ve collected a good sample of internal site search data, there are many ways to put it to use for new product/service development ideas and for marketing your small business. For example:

  • You might want to start search engine keyword advertising campaigns for the most commonly searched (relevant) keywords. Consider Google Adwords, Bing Ads, or other PPC (Pay Per Click) marketplaces.
  • If you don’t currently rank well in search engine results, you should spend some time on search engine optimization for your most popular internal site keywords/phrases. (Check out Search Engine Land’s Guide To SEO for help.)
  • Use the results to plan future product offerings. For example, if your company is a cleaning service, and you see lots of searches for “window cleaning” but you don’t offer it, you might want to add that as an additional service.
  • Work on your site content so that searches that currently do not return results, or searches that require a second or third search, will return relevant results on the first try. This is very important, as studies show that almost 50% of people give up and leave a site if their first query does not generate a relevant result.
  • Add content for services you don’t offer. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it can really work to your advantage if you do offer a product that is superior to the one the searcher is looking for, and you can make a strong case for it. For example, if your company offers glass storage containers (but not plastic storage containers), you could create extensive content on why glass is superior to plastic. This strategy can be used to help your company rank in organic search results for “plastic storage container,” will enable anyone using your internal site search to get a relevant result for “plastic storage container” and will give you the opportunity to make your sales pitch to the customer and encourage them to purchase your “glass storage container” instead.
    This approach may work wonders and result in new customers who might never have found you otherwise. It may also fall flat if people searching for “plastic storage containers” truly have no interest in glass, in which case you may want to abandon the project (or create a new plastic storage container offering, if that fits with your overall business model).


Adding Search to Your Website

Of course, if you don’t have internal search functionality on your website then you can’t benefit from the data it provides. The good news is that it is fairly easy to add. And unless your site has only a few pages, search is a valuable tool that will help visitors have a better experience on your website. (See Search vs. navigate: How people behave on websites – do they search or do they navigate?)

There are three basic methods for adding search to your website:


Installing and Managing Your Own Script

This option provides you the most control over how your search engine functions, the results it returns, the look-and-feel of the search box and results page, and how thoroughly and often your site is indexed. And while some website hosting providers will include a packaged site search as part of their offerings, in most cases you will need to install, configure, and maintain the search application yourself—which requires some programming savvy.

Depending on your hosting environment, you can select a search engine written in php, perl, ASP, or javascript. Though, for the best performance you want to be sure to select one that actually indexes your site and searches the index, as opposed to one that does a text search of your entire site each time a query is entered into the search box.

For options check out this list, this list, this list for PHP scripts, and this list for perl scripts.


Using a Hosted Search Service

This option is ideal for those who want a somewhat customizable site search but don’t have the technical savvy to use an installed search script. These services, many of which have free versions, provide an online configuration interface and then produce custom html code that you simply copy and paste into your website.

The downside is that you often have only limited control over how the search looks and functions, and unless you upgrade to a paid version you may have to live with ads for external sites and/or branding for the search service on your site. The index of your site may also be updated only weekly or monthly, rather than in real time—something to consider if you change content frequently.

Two good choices are:

  • freefind
    This service offers a robust search with loads of added features including the ability to index word and .pdf documents as well as web pages. It can be fully customized, you can manually re-index or set up scheduled re-indexing, and it can be used to generate sitemaps. It also provides free reporting on the searches performed, which is a huge advantage. However, the free version will serve ads with your search results. The paid version starts at $60 per year for a 250 page website.
  • jRank
    This free search service does not have a paid option, so there is no upselling involved. It offers a simple search for your website that can be configured in minutes, and deployed simply by pasting html code on your site. However, the results do include Google ads which can’t be removed. Once nice feature is the ability to create sub-set searches. So for example, if your site offers Nuts and Bolts, the searcher could use a drop-down box to filter the search to only “Nuts” content or “Bolts” content. jRank also offers a Rest API that you can use to create advanced customization for your site search.

Other options include SiteLevel Basic, FusionBot (designed for ecommerce sites), and Findberry (which does not include ads in the free version, but that version will only index 5 pages).


Google Custom Search

Google Custom Search enables you to use Google technology to add a search box that only returns results from your website. The free version will include Google Ads on all results pages (but you can make money off these ads if you set up an Ad-Sense account). With the paid version you can remove the ads. Custom Search is very similar to the hosted search services described above, and you simply paste the code Google provides into your website to use it. Some useful features include the ability to search not only your own website, but to include results from the entire web yet program your pages to show up first, and the ability to create custom topic-based searches of up to 10 external websites. So, for example you could index the ten best sites on car repair you can find, and offer your customers a customized “auto repair” search engine. See the Custom Search Help Center for complete documentation on how to get started.


Whichever option you choose, don’t forget to collect and analyze those statistics. You may not be able to remove bias and other psychological factors that distort the accuracy of results from customer surveys, or from well-meaning customer suggestions; but you can trust the data you collect from your website.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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