Internal search: Often overlooked, but critical for success

Bill Hunt is CEO of Global Strategies International, a search engine marketing consultancy, and co-author (with Mike Moran) of "Search Engine Marketing, Inc." (IBM Press, 2008, 2nd edition). BtoB recently asked Hunt about trends in internal search best practices.

BtoB: Marketers spend quite a bit of time devising search marketing campaigns to attract visitors to their Web sites, but it's your position that they often ignore internal search optimization. Please explain.

Hunt: Internal search queries entered by visitors once they're already on your Web site is often just an afterthought if it's thought about at all. But it's critical, especially for b-to-b companies. And it's often characterized by dysfunction between business units, such as marketing and IT.

BtoB: How does that happen?

Hunt: You would think that if a company is making an announcement about something, it would reference it on its Web site. But say the Web page launched the same morning as the news release, without regard for search engine crawl cycles. If it's waiting to be crawled, nobody's going to find it, even if they're on your Web site.

Companies often find out about this after the fact, when customers are asked to fill out a satisfaction form. They'll be asked, "How was your experience?" and they'll reply, "It sucked, because the new information couldn't be found on your Web site." For whatever reason, it didn't show up. And that's just announcements. Companies often have a multitude of products, and they all can't be presented on the home page, so they have to be located via internal search. Our experience shows that 40% to 70% of people who land on a multi-product home page do an onsite search for what they're looking for, even if the site has drop down menus. That makes internal search critical.

BtoB: How is internal search typically handled?

Hunt: The same technologies that the search engines use externally to score Web sites and their content are used internally. The leading onsite search engines are Google Search Appliance, IBM OmniFind, Microsoft FAST, and Endeca Technologies. Almost all of them allow companies to skew their pages through a "boost list," that loads a list of pages based on the keyword internal search. The key is you want the right page to come up first.

BtoB: What can marketers do to make sure their internal search is optimized?

Hunt: First, plan ahead. Coordinate crawl schedules with your Webmaster or folks who manage your onsite search, so queued-up announcements can be properly indexed and found. Then make sure the same results are found internally as are found externally when you Google important keywords.

Software companies in particular should consider error codes, so people running the product can search for solutions to problems they encounter. The process also is a great early warning sign; if people are searching for a particular error code, you know you've got a problem to resolve.

BtoB: Are there tests you recommend to gauge success here?

Hunt: First, there's the "no results clicked" test, which reports when someone does a query, gets a results page, but does not click on any results. Pick a threshold for concern five searches in a month for example of any search phrase that yields no clicked results, to see which rules or content needs to be added or changed to deliver better and more relevant searches.

Then there's the "all searches with no results" test, which shows the content visitors are looking for that has no matching results. An example of this is a product recently announced in the press, but which searchers can't find on your Web site. This also provides valuable insight into the activities and interest of the visitor communities and the press.

BtoB: I can see how these things are often overlooked by overworked marketers.

Hunt: The biggest enemy of marketers on the Web is that back button. We spend time, money and resources bringing people to our Web sites, and the last thing you want is for them to go away frustrated because they can't find what they want from us.

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