Search: it’s what people do instinctively when they need information.

Think about how often we rely on Google’s search bar. It’s the very first thing we look at when we hit Google’s homepage. We aren’t thinking about where the search bar is, or how we ask a question. We just want to get to the thing we want–and by now we are used to powerful search that can oblige. In fact, search is so inherent to the digital experience that we only really notice it when it’s not working.

In the context of a website experience, search is the critical, connective tissue between a brand, its content, and its site visitors. A brand could have stellar content designed to inform their customers all about their products. However, if a customer can’t find that content, it is all but meaningless.

Let’s break down what site search is, why it is so critical to a customer’s first impression of your brand, and how it functions as the low-key game-changer in content marketing and branding.

What is site search?

Site search can also be referred to as on-site search or external site search, and refers to the
applications that enable someone to search the content within a public website or collection of websites to find information. In this case, “public” means the content is not locked behind a login screen or gated form. Some search applications provide access across a brand or company’s web properties, providing search across the entirety of sites in one unified experience.

How does site search work?

Before anyone ever searches for anything, a search application is pointed to a website or collection of sites and starts to go through each web page. It follows each link, combing through the text, images, and attachments. The search app then creates a search index that keeps track of which words appear on which web page.

Some find it helpful to visualize the index in the back of a book. Now imagine it’s an index for every word that appears across the whole website. Each word is ingested into the index and the search app makes a note of where it appears in each of the site’s pages. We call this an inverted index. The search app eventually crawls through all the site’s content and has created the index–a map of where every word appears and how frequently. Most search apps will periodically look for new pages or content so the index is always updated.

And all of this has to happen before a visitor even types the first letter of their first query.

Relevance and ranking pull the most weight

Okay, so how does a search application know what is relevant for a specific query? How does the ranking system work and how can we know that it is accurate? There a couple techniques:

  • Term frequency looks at the frequency of a word or phrase in a document or page. A web page that mentions the words in the query several times is probably more relevant than one that mentions it only once.
  • Document frequency looks at how often the word or phrase appears across all the sites the search app is connected to. The more seldom a term is across the whole site, the more likely it is to be a better match for the query.

Where AI comes in

AI-powered site search can enable search applications to take visitors to the query they want–even if they aren’t using the “right” words or spelling. It helps the system understand user intent beyond the literal meaning of what they typed into the search box, and continues to learn how they interact with the website and content so it can better personalize their experience.

Teams could spend days, months, or even years manually making long lists of synonyms and substitutions. This generates another colossal list of rules and exceptions. Machine learning can be used to better understand meaning and relationships between site content and the people searching it–intelligently strengthening the connective tissue between everything. This takes pressure off of teams that manage the site, and enhances the digital experience for visitors who receive a personalized search experience.

Why is site search important?

A company’s website search experience is a key part of the site’s overall customer experience. Marketing teams tend to underestimate site search simply because they don’t use it themselves and are more focused on content production and campaign execution. There isn’t always time to pause and remember that the content is only as effective as it is findable. Focusing on smarter site search can ensure a company’s website and brand make a great first impression. Companies can even shorten the customer journey by delivering the right content in front of each visitor at the right moment, moving them further down the funnel.

Interested in all the ways site search can be a super effective content marketing tool for your brand? Get the full scoop in our free Site Search 101 ebook.

About Dev Bhat

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