Understanding site search tracking in Google Analytics

Introduction to Site Search (or Internal Site Search)

Site search is a functionality provided by a website in the form of search box through which website visitors search the website for information or products.

If your website provides site search functionality then you should set up ‘site search tracking’ in Google Analytics.

Introduction to Site Search Tracking in Google Analytics

Through ‘site search tracking’ in Google Analytics you can determine:

  • The web pages from which visitors started their search on your website (Start pages)
  • The search terms used by website visitors to find information on your website.
  • The search categories used by website visitors
  • The web pages visitors saw after clicking on one of the search results on the search result page (i.e. Search Destination pages)
  • How effective the search results were in driving user engagement, sales and conversions.

With this insight you can determine missing contents on your website i.e. the contents which should be there (as lot of visitors search for it) but are not there.

By analyzing site search reports you can improve the quality of search results for key phrases and can develop better user experience.

You can also identify new keywords for your search marketing campaigns (SEO and PPC).

You can create site search funnels in Google Analytics and use it to understand the users’ intent and optimize your website for traffic and conversions.

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Introduction to search query and category parameters

A query string is the part of the URL which comes after the ‘?’ character.

For example in the URL:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/?s=enhanced+ecommerce

The query string is: s=enhanced+ecommerce

A query string is made up of one or more ‘key=value’ pairs.

For example in the query string: s=enhanced+ecommerce

The ‘key’ is ‘s’ and the ‘value’ is ‘enhanced+ecommerce’

The key which represents a search term is called the search query parameter.

The key which represents a search category is called the search category parameter.

For example, consider the following URL:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/?s=enhanced+ecommerce&cat=ecommerce

Here,

s’ is the search query parameter.

cat’ is the search category parameter.

A search query parameter can be any combination of characters. Following are examples of valid query parameters:

  • keywords
  • term
  • q
  • s etc

Similarly, a search category parameter can be any combination of characters.

If you website has got site search box then perform a search on your website.

Now analyze the URL of the search result page.

If your website site search functionality uses a search query parameter then most likely it will append the query parameter to the search URL.

Similarly, if your website site search functionality uses a search category parameter then most likely it will append the category parameter to the search URL.

However these days more and more websites are being built whose internal site search does not use query or category parameters.

The search term is either present in the URL (but without query/category parameter) or it is not present at all.

Following is an example of search page URL which contains the search term in the URL but without query parameter:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/search/enhanced+ecommerce

Following is an example of search page URL which contains both the search term and the search category in the URL but without query and category parameters:

https://www.abc.com/search#shirts&categories_02

Following is an example of search page URL which does not contain: search term, search query/category parameter in the URL:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/search/

Ask your developer, if you are not sure what your query and category parameters are.

Introduction to GET based search engine

An internal search engine like the one used on your website can use GET or POST method to send search information from a user’s web browser to your web server.

If your internal site search engine uses the GET method to send the search information from user’s web browser to your web server then you are using the GET based search engine

In the case of GET based search engine, the search information is sent from a user’s web browser to your web server via the URL.

Because of this reason, the search term and search query/category parameters appear in the search page URL.

There are no security implications of using the GET method for internal site search unless you are sending sensitive data (like usernames, passwords etc) along with the search information. 

If you are using internal site search on your website, it is wise to use the GET method because of the following reasons:

#1 GET requests can be bookmarked. So a user can bookmark a search result page along with the search query/ category parameters.

#2 GET request can be cached and they remain in the browser history. Thus making it easy for your website users to return to the last search result page on your website.

#3 You can use a search result page as a landing page for your PPC campaigns. In this way you can create highly targeted campaigns like: ‘Men polo shirt white’

#4 You can easily set up site search tracking for a GET based search engine in Google Analytics.

Related Article: Tracking Site Search for GET-Based Search Engines in Google Analytics

Introduction to POST based search engine

If your internal site search engine uses the POST method to send the search information from user’s web browser to your web server then you are using the POST based search engine.

In the case of POST based search engine, the search information is sent from user’s web browser to your web server within the body of the HTTP request and not via the URL.

Because of this reason, the search term and search query/category parameters do not appear in the search page URL.

POST method is generally used when you want to send sensitive data from user’s web browser to your web server.

For example if you want to send the submitted form data to your web server then you use the POST method (and not the GET method)

If you are using internal site search on your website, it is wise not to use the POST method because of the following reasons:

#1 POST requests can not be bookmarked. So a user can not bookmark a search result page along with the search/query parameters.

#2 POST request can not be cached and they do not remain in the browser history. Thus making it impossible for your website users to return to the last search result page on your website.

#3 You can not use a search result page as a landing page for your PPC campaigns. So you won’t be able to create highly targeted PPC campaigns.

#4 You can not easily set up site search tracking for a POST based search engine.

#5 Search information (search query terms, search categories) is hardly a sensitive information. So POST based search engine is not really required.

The only real advantage of using a POST based search engine is that POST requests have no restriction on the size of data you can send from user’s web browser to your web server.

So if your query string is crazy long with lot of parameters then it make sense to use the POST based search engine.

However instead of using crazy long query strings, use clean and short URLs.

Not only there are SEO and user friendly, they will also let you use the GET based search engine on your website.

Related article: Setting Up Site Search Tracking for POST based search engines in Google Analytics

Other Articles you will find useful:

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  10. Tracking Site Search without Query Parameter in Google Tag Manager
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Himanshu Sharma

Digital Marketing Consultant and Founder of Optimizesmart.com

Himanshu helps business owners and marketing professionals in generating more sales and ROI by fixing their website tracking issues, helping them understand their true customers purchase journey and helping them determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

He has over 12 years experience in digital analytics and digital marketing.

He was nominated for the Digital Analytics Association's Awards for Excellence.

The Digital Analytics Association is a world renowned not-for-profit association which helps organisations overcome the challenges of data acquisition and application.

He is the author of four best-selling books on analytics and conversion optimization:

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