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How to track internal site searches in Google Analytics

You most probably have a search box on your website. But do you know what your audience is actually searching for? 

It takes just a couple of minutes to set-up search term tracking in your Google Analytics account.

This can actually give you great insights into your content:

  • what keywords are most useful for your visitors
  • what topics to focus on (with your text and images)
  • how people are navigating through your website when an internal search is involved

It is most useful for artists/agencies running stock photography sites, or simply successful photographers with larger archives, but everybody could benefit from this.

Here are the quick steps involved in tracking search terms in Google Analytics:


 1. Figure out your site’s search query parameter

For WordPress, it’s usually “s“.
For Squarespace or Wix, it’s “q“.
For PhotoShelter, it’s “I_DSC“.

If you’re using some other platform out there, it’s very easy to find out what your own site’s query parameter is. Simply open your site in a new browser tab right now and do a search using a random word. Try to avoid spaces for this test, so let’s use “pinkfloyd”.

Afterward, notice your site’s URL, it should look something like this:

Website search query parameter

In the image above, the query parameter is “s” (look for what’s between the ? and the = in your URL)


2. Enable site search tracking in Google Analytics

You need to go into your Google Analytics Admin page and click on “View Settings” (after selecting the appropriate Account > Property > View for your site of course).

Google Analytics Admin page - View settingsGoogle Analytics Admin page - View settings

Inside the “View Settings” section, scroll down to “Site Search Settings”:

  • enable “Site search Tracking”
  • enter the Query parameter you’ve figured out in step 1. You can enter more (separated by commas) if you have a hybrid site (WordPress + PhotoShelter for example).
  • you can leave “Site search categories” disabled (unless you know what you’re doing)
  • click Save

Google Analytics site search options

If you’re using Google Tag Manager, make sure you publish a new container version after enabling site search in Google Analytics or read this post to debug problems: Fix GA Site Search With Google Tag Manager.


3. View your traffic’s search terms in Google Analytics

Google states that “It may take up to 48 hours for data to appear in your reports once you have configured Site Search.“. Your wait period will probably be much shorter.

Afterward, you’ll start seeing your site search stats in the Reporting > Behaviour > Site Search report.

Here’s a sample page from an old photography website:

Google Analytics Site Search report - Search Terms

Bonus: Also track site search categories in G. Analytics

Remember the Site Search settings in step 2 above? You could also enable “Site Search Categories“, for which you need to figure out what your site’s category parameters are. This is usually useful for people who allow searching within specific collection/gallery/categories (sometimes using dropdowns). 

For example, you can use PhotoShelter’s gallery & collection IDs as query parameters: G_ID & C_ID. (You need to separate them with a comma when entering them in Google Analytics View Settings: G_ID,C_ID). Or you can use step 1 above to figure out your own site’s category parameters in the URL.


4. Dive deeper into your site search stats to make informed content decisions

a) What can you tell from the start pages of your site searches?

See whether people are searching from the place you expect them to (Behavior > Site Search > Search Pages). If there’s no actual start page (or it says “(entrance)“, it means people reach your search results page directly from search engines or other links you have online.

If you do have top internal starting pages, figure out what is happening on those pages that’s requiring people to do a search. Could you organize the content on the page in a better fashion (like a grid of sub-galleries)?

b) Remove or update your low-performing search results.

Take a look at your “% Search Exists” stats (Behavior > Site Search > Search Terms).

A high exit percentage basically tells you that people didn’t click on any results for that search term and just left the site.

Why were they less satisfied with the results? Do those images lack quality? And most importantly, were you using keywords that are not relevant for the actual images? (which would indicate that people search for certain images or blog posts, but weren’t happy with the results)

c) Use segments to compare with other visitor groups.

Using the Segment pulldown menu, you can start asking yourself questions relevant to your photography business:

  • How are mobile visitors searching compared to desktop visitors?
  • Are Returning Users searching your site?
  • What are your country-specific visitors searching for?

d) Do you actually get any benefit from having a search option on your site?

In your Site Search > Usage report, you should also have conversion columns in the report table (if you’ve set up Goals). This allows you to compare how you search-visitors compare to your non-search ones, giving you an idea of how certain searches impact your conversion rates.

Secondly, analyze your Search Depth stats (Site Search > Search Terms) to see the average number of pages people browse to after their search, which tells you if the search functionality is actually helping you keep visitors on your site or not.

e) Are visitors refining their search results?

Your search terms stats (Behavior > Site Search > Search Terms) display a column for “Search Refinements“. If one of your search terms has a high refinement percentage, you can find out why people are not getting the results they want immediately.

Click on the term, and then choose the primary dimension to be” Refined Keyword”. This will tell you right away what new keywords people are using to further refine the search results.

Could you simplify the process for them? Are you forgetting some useful keywords in your image metadata?

f) Feature new content on your website based on frequent site searches.

This one should be obvious: if you see people often searching for particular keywords, try putting those images more prominently on your homepage or inside featured galleries. Or publish more blog posts on those topics.


Further reading


Have you discovered anything interesting in your site search stats? 

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