By Peter Buffington
18 Sep 2018

The Real Gold: Learning from On-Site Search Data

Basic SEO     Keyword Research


SEO is about understanding user intent and crafting strategy around what people actually want.

Optimizing the content on your website and wider organizational digital products for search engine visibility requires a methodical approach and consistent effort, but the principles are beautifully simple: users tell us what they want, and we give it to them. It’s like a restaurant.

This line of thinking is even more true for on-site search. It’s an absolute gold mine for SEO strategy, and keyword research specifically.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is Australia’s taxpayer-funded national broadcaster, and is also a prime example of a large organization that takes search behavior seriously. The ABC produces and distributes diverse content, ranging from news videos to talk shows to text article to podcasts to games. With that comes responsibility to ensure all that content is discoverable, on and off platform, to users across the country and the world.

While traditional SEO — involving consideration for external search engines like Google and Baidu — is surely part of the ABC’s editorial and technical strategy, site search data from within our actual websites and apps has become an integral part of our digital product and content vision.

With tens of thousands of on-site searches each day, our keyword data is full of rich learnings and has many associated insights such as peak search times, full user path, and even the ID associated with particular users and particular searches. This data is essentially unfiltered and unsampled — a little more detail than AdWords provides — and can be used to improve the performance of our internal site search as well as third party search engine performance.

Here are three actionable steps that the ABC has taken to leverage site search that can apply to any organization of any size or any industry.

1. We implemented site search and made sure it was tracked with a full analytics package.

If your organization’s website doesn’t have a site search function, seriously consider adding one. Part of adding this function is ensuring you can track its use, and track it well. Knowing how people on your website are behaving and what they want from your website is invaluable for content development, site structure, and optimization.

Key Things to Track with Analytics:

  • Keywords
  • Location of search (which URL)
  • Time of search
  • Destination (which URL)
  • Demographic data
  • Keywords that don’t trigger relevant results
  • Adjusted searches

2. We committed to site search.

According to a recent study from eConsultancy, 84% of companies don’t actively optimize or measure their on-site search. Imagine how tiny the percentage is for businesses that consistently leverage that data to influence wider strategy. At the ABC, we didn’t want to be one of the businesses that ignored some of their most important and detailed user data.

What Commitment Means

  • Get a team around your site search and include the necessary resources on this team: a product owner who is responsible for on-site search, a tester, and even a developer to customize the experience and user interface (UI).
  • Make it a long-lived focus by considering it as a brother or sister of traditional SEO that requires consistent and sustained effort.
  • Continue iterating the way you utilize the data as you become more familiar with its potential.

3. We leveraged site search data to inform website optimization, content development and information architecture.

When we dug into our site search data, we found that over 50% of users were searching for information about shows on our network and over 10% were searching for games. This was a big surprise because these weren’t the assumed priority areas for our audience.

Using this information, we learned that not only should information about our shows and games be front and center with regards to user interface and navigation (and site search/SEO strategy), but also that our show page titles were too focused on the episode and season numbers rather than specific show details, such as title, actors or genre. We also discovered we didn’t have some information users were searching for available on the site, such as detailed actor profiles.

Users on your website, regardless of industry, are very likely searching for similar content and topics that others may be looking for in third-party search. The ABC has found direct parallels between site and third-party search behavior and the learnings have helped us move forward strategically.

Ways to Use Site Search Data

  • Information Architecture and Navigation
    If users are searching for something frequently, you may as well present a path to that information right away.
  • Page and Website Optimization
    Use the detailed keyword data to understand specifics around what people are looking for, and which areas of your website they are searching for them on.
  • Content Development
    If you don’t have the information people are looking for, create an optimized page or section about it.
  • Social and Wider Media and Content Strategies


Site search is a data-driven representation of the public and your specific users.

Implementing site search, if it’s not already available to your site’s visitors, can not only improve the UX of your site, but open the door to a wealth of data about how those users behave and what they want from your website. It’s a benefit to everyone: improved functionality means visitors have a better experience on your site, and the insights you’ll gain from the data you gather allow you to further improve that experience.

Take advantage of your most loyal followers by leveraging the questions they’re asking right on your doorstep.

Peter Buffington

Peter Buffington is SEO Manager at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Peter leads the organization’s SEO strategy, from both a technical and editorial perspective, and specializes in enterprise SEO, content marketing, and digital media consulting. Learn more about Peter on his website, Search Harvest Digital.