Using search analytics for UX research

Site search data is one of the best features of Google Analytics, yet often overlooked during UX research.

I recently made a list of my top ten Google Analytics tips for UX research. In one of these points I described the importance of using your site’s search analytics. The data it offers is so incredibly useful for usability studies, yet it often gets forgotten. Because I love search analytics so much, I figured the probably deserve a post of their own.

Over the next few paragraphs I’ll explain how to set up search analytics, and how you can use search data improve your UX research.

Setting up search analytics

Search analytics isn’t enabled by default, but it’s super easy to configure.

Because this is an additional aspect of your configuration, a lot of site administators neglect to ever switch it on. 

I’ve inherited the Google Analytics accounts of dozens of clients over the last few years, and it’s still rare to find them with search analytics configured correctly. Configuration isn’t retroactive either. Search data will only be gathered after the feature is enabled, so it really is in your best interests to get set up as quickly as possible.

  1. Go to the main ‘Admin’ area of Google Analytics.
  2. Make sure that the right ‘Account’ and ‘Property’ is selected. 
  3. Under the right-most list of options, select ‘View Settings’.
  4. At the bottom of this page, there will be an option called ‘Site search tracking’. By default this will be switched off ; turn it on.
  5. You’ll be asked for a query parameter. You can find this by making a search on your site and looking at the search return page’s URL. In the example below, we can see the parameter is ‘q’.
  6. Save the changes. Google Analytics should now be tracking your search data.

Screenshot of Google Analytics site search setup

Using search analytics

You can find your search search data within the ‘Behaviour’ section of analytics. This view will give you high level search stats such as where and when people use search. More importantly though, it will give you stats around the individual search terms that people are using on your site.

Just like any other view in Google Analytics this data can be filtered, sorted or customised with advanced segments. You can also include this information in your created dashboards.

Screenshot of site search data on Google Analytics

Appying it to UX research

This data is so useful for UX designers. It gives a direct indication of kinds of content that people are looking for, and the specific terms that they are using to describe that content. This data can help to improve your navigation structure, prioritise content on the home page or even develop your site’s overarching content strategy going forwards.

The information we can get from search analytics allows us to start asking questions like:

  • Are we missing important content?
  • Is top-searched content too hard to find in our navigation structure?
  • Do visitors use the same language choices and that we do?
  • Do different audiences value different kinds of content?

In the past we might have needed to do some kind of workshop or card sorting activity to get these answers, but analytics will go a long way towards giving us this information quickly and with no cost.

Aquisition keywords vs. site search keywords

There’s one more thing to note, and that’s the difference between acquisition keywords and site-search terms. Google analytics gives you both of these, and whilst they may initially may appear very similar they actually have very different purposes. 

Acquisition keywords are the words that cause your site to appear in search engine results.

Site search terms are the words that people use to find content on your website itself.

This is an important distinction, as your site will never be found on Google for content that you don’t already have or terms that you aren’t using. Acquisition keywords are great for identifying the SEO value of your existing content, but it won’t identify deficiencies and opporutunities as effectively as your own site search data.

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 7 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris is a freelance UX designer with over seven years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

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