On-Site Search: The SEO We’re Forgetting

It’s like finding your wallet in plain sight on the counter after an hour of turning your house upside down in a desperate search to find it.

Yes, your visitors may be telling you exactly what they want—and doing so directly on your site—but you’re too busy searching in faraway places to see it.

On-site search (also referred to as the completely generic “internal search”), has been there all along, right in front of our faces.

As consumers, on-site search is either the first or second part of our digital shopping experience.

You know it well. Here’s perhaps the most obvious example of what on-site search looks like when it’s the first part:

on-site search amazon


And Google typically plays intermediary when it’s the second part of our search:


Google on-site search


For digital marketers, on-site search has (somehow) only recently become part of the conversation.

SEO has long ruled the throne. Which is to say Google has ruled the throne.

But, as JP Sherman titled his piece at Moz:

SEO Has a Younger Sibling: It’s On-Site Search, and It Deserves Attention.

Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media has also been waving the on-site search flag. He speaks frequently on the topic, imploring his audience with lines like:

“Your audience is searching, and they’re searching directly on your site. Are you listening?”

For a majority, even in the “data-driven” digital marketing space, the answer is no.

Crestodina even goes so far as to feature the proper Google Analytics configuration of on-site search (image below of first step) in his widely-read Website Launch Checklist.

On-site search tracking

But considering how critical on-site search is to most of us as consumers (and therefore to digital retailers), it’s baffling that only a handful of marketers are taking it seriously enough to write and talk about (let alone implement).

Some estimates suggest that nearly 60% of marketers are turning a blind eye to the data their visitors are handing them on a silver platter through their on-site searches (which is why Crestodina is so fired up about this topic).

How better to understand what your visitors want, how they are referring to things, and even which content gaps you may have than to learn from what visitors are searching for directly on your site?

Now that we know about SEO’s younger (and unheralded) sibling, let’s start to fill the gap:


Why is on-site search optimization so important?

On-site search example


On the most basic level, a visitor likely has some understanding about your product and/or trust in your company to take time to search on your site.

Think about that. They believe your site may have the solution and/or product they are looking for. Why not help get them where they want to go?

Citing data from Econsultancy and ConversionXL, here’s how JP put it:

“Performing an on-site search is a strong behavioral predictor of intent to convert.”

The research he points to shows that on-site searchers are twice as likely to convert and more likely to return with purchasing intent.

Additionally, “Companies had an average overall ecommerce conversion rate of 2.77%. However, the conversion rate nearly doubled to 4.63% from people who used on-site search and found what they were looking for.”

This found what they were looking for is easier said than done, especially for internet retailers with a massive and varied selection of products.

There are many discussions out there about how to double conversion rates, but very few of them are about optimizing the on-site search experience. In fact, that same study from Econsultancy found that:

“Only 15% of companies have dedicated resources for optimizing the site search experience.”

The questions, then, are all about how to break the norm.


How should you optimize on-site search?

Herein lies a major challenge. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Solutions depend on your needs. If you’re simply running a blog and have it tied to Google Analytics, toggling on Site Search will grant you access to some valuable data.

Here’s an example from the searches on my personal website during June 2017:


Google Analytics configuring on-site search


To bring it back to our original example, let’s say you’re selling wetsuits like O’Neill.

You’re receiving far more on-site searches than my humble site, and the eCommerce industry research proves that one way to grow your revenue is by reducing on-site search friction.

For the original query we used (“women’s wetsuit”), it’s clear that O’Neill has a strong organic SEO game. Here’s a recap:


SEO on-site search


But to remain content with this is no longer enough, especially for a brand cradled between ads and competitors.

And needing to compete in the age of Amazon, which, according to Greg Sterling’s piece in Search Engine Land, is where 38% of shoppers start their search (Google accounts for another 35%).

With O’Neill doing so well in Google, how can they possibly compete against the behemoth that is Amazon? One way, you guessed it, is through pairing their terrific Google SEO with a highly-relevant and friction-free on-site search experience.

Here’s how Amazon does it:

On-site search challenges


Notice how Amazon has dismantled the first part of the query-submit-results framework by providing a few related terms.

This gives on-site searchers the ability to either submit their own query or select one.

But in the following example you’ll see that O’Neill has dismantled the entire framework by showing rather than telling. As I type I’m able to see relevant visual examples appear in real-time, which makes me as the searcher more inclined to land on a product page of interest.

Relevant on-site search

This search process also created a better customer experience because it saved me the hassle of having to complete the search and then sort through another list.

A radical focus on optimizing the on-site search experience, among other elements, helped O’Neill achieve some incredible results:

Improving on-site search

Some final thoughts about on-site search

Whether you run a small personal blog, are a digital marketer at a scrappy SaaS startup, or are an industry retail leader, neglecting on-site search is likely costing you readers and buyers.

Google-focused SEO may continue to reign supreme, but its “younger sibling” is growing up.

And those who leverage it and mature alongside it will be rewarded.

Cameron Conaway

Cameron is the Director of Content at Reflektion. His work as a journalist and content marketer has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among other outlets. Connect with him here on LinkedIn and on Twitter @CameronConaway.