Jeremy Smith May 26, 2016 4:14:07 PM 30 min read

How to Optimize Site Search for Maximum Conversions

Site search.  What is it? And why does it matter?

Site search is onsite search functionality.

You’ve seen it. You’ve used it. You know what it is. The question is, what are your users are searching for INSIDE your website, after they land on each page.  Most digital marketers don't know, and don't know how to find out.  Do you?

Let's look at some quick examples.

JCPenney puts their site search toward the top of the main page.

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True to form, Apple opts for the understated search function in the top nav.

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Many large retailers feature the search function directly in Google’s SERPs.

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Site search forms may come with filtering options, enhancements or suggestions.

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Instead of manually filtering their shopping experience, most users simply search for it.

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Basically every e-commerce site has a search function. But few conversion optimizers think about it long enough or deeply enough to really care ... let alone optimize it.

Site search is one of those subtle-but-important areas to optimization because of the data it produces about trending user behavior.  It’s there, but you don’t necessarily stay up all night obsessing over its impact upon your conversion rates.

I didn’t write this article to make you obsess. I did, however, write this article to help you think through the issue, alert you to the common mistakes committed in site search functionality, and recommend improvements that could directly impact your conversion rates and improve your revenue.

According to Econsultancy, 30 percent of visitors on an e-commerce site will use the site search feature. Those people are not only showing an interest in the products offered on the site, but also an intent to purchase.

That’s almost a third of your visitors that you’re brushing off if you don’t pay careful attention to site search.

Awesome Search = Awesome Conversions

How do we know that people who use site search tend to be in the lower end of the sales funnel? Not only because it’s intuitive (any search for an item shows at least some intent to buy it), but also because the data say so.

(I love data.)

Inbenta cites an example of one “huge e-commerce retailer” that noticed a conversion rate increase of 43 percent among visitors who used site search versus those who didn’t.

In addition, Screen Pages conducted an analysis of site search among 21 e-tailers. The results shouldn’t surprise you:

  • Visitors who used site search converted almost twice as well (4.63 percent vs. 2.77 percent) as those who didn’t
  • Visitors using site search contributed to 13.8 percent of overall revenue

This graph says it all:


Simply put: you’re probably losing customers if your e-commerce site isn’t optimized for site search.

Improve your site search and you gain a competitive advantage. It’s that simple.

How would you like an easy way to gain a competitive advantage over other companies in your industry? Site search optimization might be one of the simplest ways to improve your market share.

Why? Because another study by Econsultancy shows that only 15 percent of companies have resources dedicated to site search.

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In other words, if you decide to optimize your site search, you’re almost certainly going to be ahead of the competition. That translates into increased conversions, higher sales and a larger share of the market.

It gets better (if you’re running a site that takes site search seriously, anyway). According to the same study, only 7 percent of companies report that they’re analyzing site search data and using it to improve the customer experience.

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It’s an easy decision. Make site search optimization a focus for your online business, and you can stand head and shoulders above the competition.

You didn’t realize it was this good, did you?

Here’s the data you’re looking for:

Beyond the raw numbers and stats, there’s another reason to pay particular attention to site search: it tells you exactly what your customers are looking for.

In other words, you find out exactly what your customers want, and what they do if they find it (or don’t find it). It’s like having them hand you the onsite customer journey map, ready made.

Think about it. Visitors type in a search term to find something on your site. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they go elsewhere.

In fact, ask yourself this question: where else can you gain insight about what people in your target market are searching for?

From surveys? Only if people are willing to complete the surveys.

From SEO search terms? Yes, but you’re drawing from a much larger universe of people with SEO search terms. Once people have landed on your site, they’re far more likely to be part of your target market.

From sales? Okay, but by the time you find out that you aren’t meeting the needs of people in your market (because your sales are lackluster), it might be too late.

The reality is that the best way to determine what your customers want is by looking at your site search analytics.

Google Analytics

The good news is that site search analytics is part of Google Analytics. You will have to go out of your way to track site searches, though.

Fortunately, it’s easy to set up site search with Google Analytics.

Start by logging in to Google Analytics. Then, click on the “Admin” menu item at the very top of the page. On the left-hand side of the page, select the “Account” you want to work with. On the right-hand side of the page, click on “View Settings.”

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Then, scroll to the bottom of that page and you should see a switch for site search. Flip that switch to the “On” position.

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Next, you’ll have to enter the query parameter. That’s tricky if you’re not familiar with web technology.

The easiest way to find your query parameter is to go to your site and perform a simple search. You should see a question mark somewhere in the URL. The letter or word that follows that question mark is probably your query parameter.

For example, if you perform a search for “widgets” and the URL you see on your screen at the top of the search results is “”, then your query parameter is “s” because that’s the character that immediately follows the question mark.

When in doubt, ask your developer for your query parameter.

Once you’ve determined your query parameter, enter it in the box and click the “Save” button at the bottom.

Now, you can track your site search analytics.

How to View Your Analytics

Once you’ve let your site search analytics run for a few days, it’s time to see what kind of information your customers are feeding you.

Go back into Google Analytics. From the “Home” page, just click on “All Website Data” below your e-commerce property. You’ll see a screen that, hopefully, looks very familiar to you.

Scroll down the left-hand sidebar to the “Behavior” menu item. Click on that and you’ll see a sub-menu. One of the items in the sub-menu is “Site Search.” Click on that and you’ll see yet another sub-menu. Click on “Search Terms.”

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Now, you can see what your visitors have been searching for.

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Using the List of Search Terms to Maximum Advantage

There are several ways that you can use site search analytics.

The first and most obvious is to see whether people are searching for something on your site that you aren’t offering.

If that’s the case, you can decide whether that product really fits your overall business model and determine whether to offer it.

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You can also see which items are the most popular search terms on your site. It might be a good idea to list those items as “Featured Products” on your front page, saving customers from the necessity of even using the site search.

It’s also possible that you’ll notice a pattern among the search terms. For example, visitors might prefer your products in certain styles, sizes or colors. You can highlight those specific products on the home page as well.

You should also check the Exit Rate for your search terms. You can think of the Exit Rate as the Bounce Rate for site search. It shows you the percentage of visitors who searched for a specific term and then left the page after they saw the results.

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Depending on the capability of your analytics program or Google Analytics chops, you can slice and dice exit rate data in order to best suit your needs and curiosity.

Exit rates may suggest that, for whatever reason, people using a particular search term weren’t impressed with what it turned up from your product line. If that number is particularly high for a specific term, it’s a good idea to find out why people aren’t interested in what you’re offering.

Along those lines, take a look at Search Refinement for each search term as well. That tells you how many people searched for a specific term and then searched again within those search results. It might be that you’re not offering a particular style of a product that your customers want.

Finally, if you see that people are misspelling brand or product names, make sure that your search engine still gets them to the right place.

Optimization Tip No. 1: A Bigger, Better Search Bar

Now that we’ve covered the importance of site search optimization and how to implement analytics, it’s time to cover some best practices for improving customer service with site search.

The first step is to make your search bar big and put it in a place where your visitors can’t possibly miss it.

Too many websites today almost hide the search bar in the upper right-hand corner of the website. To make matters worse, the only clue to the visitor that a search bar is even there is a little icon of a magnifying glass that users have to click on to see the bar where they type in the search term.

That’s user-hostile.

Instead, make your search bar stand out by featuring it prominently toward the top of the page. It should be one of the first things your visitors see.

Black Forest Décor made its search bar stand out more with the following changes:

  • Increased the size of the search box
  • Moved the search box to the center of the page
  • Changed the button to read “Find” instead of “Go”
  • Added color to the search box.

The result was impressive. The company saw a conversion rate increase of 34 percent.

That’s the kind of raw conversion-boosting power that site search optimization can produce.

Optimization Tip No. 2: Dump the "No Results Found” Page

If people are searching for items on your site and there are no products that match their search terms, you might be displaying a “No Results Found” page.

It’s time to change that practice immediately.

For starters, if it’s a search term that your site recognizes and you’re out of stock or the product is discontinued, display related products instead. In fact, you’re probably offering a “better” version of the product the user was searching for, so optimize your site search to show that.

If the search term is completely unrecognizable, punt. Bring up a page that reads: “Sorry, I couldn’t find that. Maybe you’re looking for one of these …” and then list the best-selling items on your site.

The bottom line: Always market something to people from the search results. That’s a chance for a sale. Take it.

Optimization Tip No. 3: Searchandizing

Here’s a new portmanteau you might not have heard before: “searchandizing.”

What is searchandizing? It’s just what it sounds like — merchandising from the search results.

The idea of searchandizing is to use search results to maximize your margins by including and emphasizing products that give you the greatest return.

For example, when someone searches for blue jeans on your e-commerce clothing site, your default search results should include the best-selling items with the highest markup toward the top. That way, visitors are more likely to help your bottom line when they make a purchase.

Annotated screen shot of expensive jeans moved to top of J. Crew site search results

If visitors sort by price, lowest to highest, then you know that they’re on the lookout for bargains. In that case, show a banner ad that advertises name brands with a steep reduction in price. Cost-conscious consumers might be willing to buy a better brand if they know they’re getting a great deal.

If you want to implement searchandizing on your site, it’s almost certainly going to require the assistance of a developer.

Optimization Tip No. 4: Offer Advanced Searching

Some customers know exactly what they want, and they know that a generic search term might not get them to that point. For those customers, you need an advanced site search.

Simply put, advanced site search allows users to search with multiple criteria. They can include a search term, but they can also add  color, size and other attributes.

It’s important that advanced searches also have the ability to search based on a range of options. For example, they should be able to select several colors or a range of sizes.

Finally, advanced searchers should also be able to select a price range for their search results.

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To implement an advanced search on your site (if you don’t already have one), meet with your developer to discuss different site search options.


Site search optimization is an excellent way to increase conversions, gain market share, and make your customers happy. If you haven’t already started optimizing your site for searches, begin by setting up site search in Google Analytics. Then meet with your developer to determine the best features for your site search going forward.

Site search is a big deal. Changing it, studying the metrics, and taking action on what you learn will definitely boost your conversion rates.


Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.