If you were ill and your doctor handed you a chart including your weight, heart rate, and blood pressure and promptly sent you on your way with no analysis or feedback, he wouldn’t be your doctor for long. Without actionable analysis of the data it has very little usefulness. Website statistics are often discussed in a similarly meaningless way. I’ve suffered through many meetings where people throw around numbers with nothing more to say about them than this number has increased and that one has decreased. Most sites have some statistics available and maybe they are even reviewed occasionally, but to get real value from your statistics they must be a catalyst for action. Analyzing your on-site search and search engine keywords is a great place to get started.
On-Site Search Analysis
If you have a search box on your website it provides one of the greatest sources of immediately actionable data. You should be able to find this data in your statistics either through a specific listing of the search terms entered or by searching page view stats for the query string you’re using to run the search (e.g. yoursite.com/search?q=keyword – just leave out the keyword to see all the keywords entered). From these results you can not only gather information about what people are most interested in, but also a wealth of data to start testing with and improving your site.
The first thing you’ll want to do with the on-site keyword list is plug them into the search box on your site beginning with the most entered keywords. Are you getting the results you would expect? If so thats great. If not you should note any lack of relevant results and add those keywords to the pages that should be showing up. By starting with the most entered phrases and working down you’re going to be rapidly improving search and your user’s experience. Also, check your search results page to see if it has a high bounce-rate (users exiting the site from this page). If this is the case carefully check for quality search results and consider all the possible results the searcher may be after.
In addition to improving search, these search phrases can help inform you about the usability of your site and the best language to communicate with your users. For your most popular searches make sure that not only the results are relevant, but that the content is also discoverable to users browsing your site. Many users will search as a quick means to finding what they are looking for, while others search as a last resort after unsuccessfully looking through your navigation. These popular search keywords also can help guide the language you use in your content. Many companies use insider language to describe services and products while the average user’s language may be completely different (think notebook vs laptop or Form 1040 vs income tax form). Take this search data and use it to communicate more effectively with your user-base.
Finally, compare this data over time. Are popular searches based on the content you are creating at those specific times or is there a trend that you can detect to better schedule your updates and marketing? If you can make a correlation between time and interest (e.g. Item A does well in the winter or Topic B is most searched near school enrollment) you’ll go a long way to improving the results of your efforts.
Incoming Search Engine Keywords
Statistics tracking will also provide you with keywords that users are entering into search engines to find your site, such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. This data isn’t as immediately impactful as your on-site search, but there is still some actionable information to be found. The primary use is search engine optimization (SEO) in relation to search-user interest.
By reviewing the incoming search terms for your site, you will see where you are ranking well and reaching visitors in search engines. This is data is invaluable, but what we’re looking for here is actionable data. Take a look at the keywords; are users finding good content for what they are searching? Look for those popular keywords and make sure you’ve got great content for your users. If you’re ranking highly for a particular phrase that is not a focus on your site there may be potential for emerging or expanding market (e.g. you sell office widgets and people are searching for health care widgets). Finally, compare this data over time as discussed for on-site keywords. Take any data gathered from search engine keywords with a grain of salt, as your ranking for these terms will change constantly and can be the cause for fluctuation in traffic.
While this article is focused on only the search aspect of statistics but with such a large topic I plan to follow up on this article in the future with other ways to improve the use of web stats. Hopefully some of these ideas will take your use of web statistics being just an observer and toward something actionable.