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5 Actionable Insights Online Retailers Can Take From Their Site Search Data

May 11, 2017

When explaining to people what I do for a living, I have found that the most relatable job I’ve had in the world of digital marketing and ecommerce was when I was an Online Trading Manager for a fashion retailer. I could simply tell people that I was a retail store manager, but for an online shop.

Marty Blog 1

That relationship between the offline and online world of retail is something which has always struck a chord with me; no matter how innovative or dynamic the user experience and feature-set of an online shop becomes, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in many cases the offline shopping experience is far superior, and is a path well trodden in terms of the model and how to make the most of your physical space, your store layout, and the customer experience throughout the shop.

One assumed advantage of traditional bricks and mortar retail is having the opportunity to talk directly to your customers, mostly on a one-to-one basis, assisting them with their queries, and pointing them in the right direction when they come to you seeking advice or help.

For example, common enquiries such as:

  • “Can you tell me where the men’s department is?”
  • “Where are your latest dresses?”
  • “Do you have the jeans from your advert in stock?”

are easily answered, and easily dealt with.

Switching to the online world, ecommerce sites attempt to answer questions like the above with best-practice design principles, well thought-out category structures and intuitive merchandising, but if a customer starts to ask a trickier, or more direct question of your website, is it able to answer it as you would hope your real-world sales assistant might?

Here’s where your website’s search box, the data it collects and how you can use the insights come into their own. If you’ve configured the Google Analytics Site Search Tracking report correctly, then you’ll have incredibly valuable data at your fingertips – and we know just how you can use it to improve your ecommerce site and the customer experience.

Screenshot 2017 05 11 13.39.32 1

Customer Insights

You spent a long time coming up with your product names, your category structure and your product types. How dare a customer call it something different, or search for it in a way you never thought possible. However, that’s exactly what they do. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It’s true, too, that often in spite of conventional wisdom when it comes to naming conventions, customers can and do have all sorts of weird and wonderful ways of searching for your wares.

Additionally, you may work for a retailer or brand that has all sorts of weird and wonderful ways of classifying colours. For example, some clothing brands would rather say that a jacket is Mazarine and Falcon, rather than Blue and Brown. That might look great in a look book or product guide, but when someone searches for a ‘blue jacket’, I’m not convinced that the ‘mazarine’ one will be returned. You can use this data to help make better decisions around product names, colours and taxonomies.


Website Merchandising

You’ve spent hours agonising on your homepage design; which categories to push this month, and which products to feature. You might also have invested time in visually merchandising your categories and sub-categories; making each page on the site look as appealing as you would hope an in-store VM would. However, if you’re not analysing your site search data then you’re missing a trick.

Last month, one of our client’s most searched for terms on their site was ‘dungarees’, accounting for over 2.5% of all site searches. Were dungarees featured on the homepage? Nope. Were they given prime real estate within the relevant category? Nope.

Now imagine how much easier they could have made the user experience, and how many fewer frustrated customers they could have had (and more sales!) if they had taken note of this search data and given their dungarees the platform that their data suggests they deserve?

Relating this back to the offline world of retail, if your sales assistants were asked time and time again where the dungarees were in your shop, you’d likely bring that gondola forward, create an eye-catching sign pointing people towards the dungarees, or maybe even look to buy in more styles of dungaree, which leads us on nicely to…

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Range Planning & Product Development

Your site search data is an insight into what your customers want, whether or not you have it.

When I worked part-time in a little book shop, we had a process of writing down everything a customer asked us for that we didn’t have in stock. Every Sunday we then went through that list, tallied up how many times each book had been asked for during that week, and then attempted to order it in via one of our suppliers for the next delivery. It was a simple case of supply and demand. Or rather, demand then supply, in this case.

Analysing site search data, you can quickly spot emerging trends that you can use to assist you with your range planning and product development.

If you’re a retailer, and people are searching for products you don’t stock; why don’t you stock them? They’re searching for them whilst on your site. They’re your captive audience. They’re in your shop, and you can’t satisfy their demand. Of course, if you sell organic food, and someone’s searching for leather jackets, then I wouldn’t read too much into that, but if you’re a yoga retailer and people are searching for water bottles, then why wouldn’t you want to capture that latent demand?

If you’re a brand, and your site search data throws up queries that don’t match your current range or product footprint, then you can use this data as part of your product development cycle. It’s possibly the most valuable data any product manager can have access to, and can help inform product iteration, product development and branching out into new categories. You can get an insight into emerging trends before the competition has even thought of them, giving you a leg-up in any brand war.


Information Architecture

One of the things that is most laboured over with any ecommerce build or refresh, is the category structure, the taxonomy, the product types, the facets and filters, and which products fall into those buckets. After all, once a product is categorised to ‘tops’, it’s never likely to make it out of there and into ‘t-shirts’, unless someone can show meaningful data to prove the need for re-merchandising, dual-merchandising or refactoring the information architecture of the site.

If your site search data throws up lots of queries for specific products, or product types, then it is arguable that your site has not been designed and laid-out in a manner that is suitable for your customers, as it suggests that people are struggling to find those products, as well as struggling to find specific categories or product types.

So have a trawl through the data, and see if those search terms warrant another conversation with your website manager.



Let’s take us back to our imaginary real-world retail store.

A customer comes in and asks you where the fountain pens are.

Do you:

  • a) Go and grab a handful of fountain pens and thrust them in front of the customer, hoping that one of your randomly assembled pens will float their boat
  • b) Take them over to your neatly merchandised fountain pens section. where you’ve used the age-old adage that ‘eye-level is buy-level’, and have employed all of your best visual merchandising tricks in order to not only convince them to part with their cash for a fountain pen but also buy some spare cartridges too.

I’m no retail guru, but I’m pretty sure I know which one you’d go for if you were looking for a happy customer and a full till at the end of the day.

So why, then, do we accept that when someone performs a search on our online store that we present them with nothing but un-merchandised product results, sorted by whichever default sort order you happened to tick when you set the site up?

Wouldn’t it be better to work through your site search report and see if you could take that searcher on a slightly more architected journey and experience of your site? For example, someone searches for ‘mens jacket’, do you want to rely on a search results page which will likely pull in every men’s jacket, and potentially the ‘women’s jackets‘ too? Or would you want to send them to a ‘Men’s Jackets’ landing page, which can show a combination of brand or lifestyle imagery, product types or sub-categories, and a selection of best-selling men’s jackets?

Additionally, people tend to search for non-product information via those little site search boxes, for example, queries like ‘delivery’, ‘returns’, ‘newcastle store’ are not unusual. Again, redirecting these searches from a search results page (which will likely be a ‘no search results’ page) to the relevant static page, for example, the Delivery page, the Returns page, or the Newcastle Store page will offer a far better user experience.



So, now that we’ve whetted your appetite for all things site search, you may be left wondering…

So How Do I Set Up Google Analytics Site Search Tracking?

Navigate to your Google Analytics account and click on the ‘Admin’ icon in the bottom left.

You’ll be taken to an Admin screen that looks a little like this…

Site Search Tracking Step 1

Click on ‘View Settings’ – the one with the red box around it in the screenshot above.

You’ll then be taken to your View Settings admin screen, which looks like this…

Site Search Tracking Step 2 1


Scroll down to see the Site Search Settings configuration.

First step is to toggle the slider to ‘On’, as above.

Next up is to determine your website’s Query Parameter.

The best way to decipher this is to perform a search on your own site and grab the URL. The Query Parameter is the word or letter immediately before the ‘=’, in most cases.

For example:

  • Query parameter: ‘name’


  • Query parameter: ‘q’


  • Query parameter: ‘searchterm’


Once set up, you can kick back, relax, and wait for your valuable site search data to pour into your search query reports in Google Analytics, which can be found in the standard suite of reports in the below location:

  • Behavior > Site Search > Search Terms


If you’ve any other great ways of using your website search data to make better decisions, improve the user experience of your site, or to help inform other business decisions, we’d love to hear about them – let us know via the comments.

Happy analysing!

Written by Andy

Andy is Venture Stream’s Chief Operating Officer and has over 15 years’ experience in ecommerce consultancy, design and retail marketing.

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