Do you have a site search on your site? An eCommerce site may have a product search, but what you really need is a custom site search for your blog and website content. No matter how much faith you put in your navigation, no matter how well presented your content may be, you really need a custom site search.
Google has one thing to say on the matter. “We don’t want search results in our search results.” What does this mean?
In the early days of search, Google would index everything indiscriminately. On sites with searches, it was often possible that you would perform a search in Google, click a link to such a site and find yourself presented with another page of search results. This was, to say the least, worthless to the user. Even if you found the page you were looking for in that site search results page, it would have been better for you and for Google if the search engine had taken you to the page you wanted instead of another results page.
To this end, Google does not index search results. Search results pages, ironically, fall victim to a number of the issues that Google tries to avoid. They are, for example, almost always within the definition of thin content. They can also fall victim to duplicate content penalties, if their results are indexed.
That said, there’s no line in the sand between a search results page and a quality reference page. Tweaking your search results to provide value beyond snippets of posts and title tags can convert a non-indexed search results page into a valuable resource for conversions.
By default, site search functionality does little to benefit your SEO. Uncontrolled and indexed, in fact, it can be an active detriment. However, that is outweighed by the value a site search provides to your website.
A custom Google site search is a very valuable tool purely from a user standpoint. It can generate incredible amounts of internal linking, taking users from one point to another at will. Users often use site search to find what they’re looking for when their basic Google search fails. Many users will choose to use site search instead of using your navigation links, simply because a single search and a single click may be all it takes to find their content, rather than an unknown number of clicks through navigation.
It’s an interesting fact that users will often convert more readily from a search results page than they will from basic category pages. Yet category pages, with valuable, optimized content, can be more beneficial to SEO. Which side do you tip the balance towards; the higher exposure but lower conversion rate of SEO emphasis, or the higher conversion rate but lower SEO from a value focus?
Site search is also a very beneficial utility for the owner of the business or manager of the website. After all, it’s a source of vast quantities of useful data. What are users searching for on your blog? What results do they check? If you have the content they want, but it isn’t showing up, it’s a sign you have some keyword optimization to do. If they’re searching for and finding what they want, you’re serving value to your users. If they’re searching for something you don’t have, well, now you have keyword research done for you and inspiration for your next blog post.
That’s the key to remember, and the most valuable part about having a site search with analytics attached. Your users are coming to your site and they’re searching for something they want to see. It’s your job to provide that content to them. If you already have it, promote it. If you don’t already have it, create it. If you don’t have it, after all, users are going to look somewhere else. They came to you first, meaning they trust your opinions above your competitors. Take advantage of that trust.
There are a few steps you can take to make sure that your search pages are valuable and not just a raw accumulation of results data. In other words, ways to make them more valuable to Google, while avoiding the typical penalties associated with dynamically created content such as search results.
• Follow and NoFollow tell the search bots whether or not they should follow a link to its destination and pass link equity. In many cases, with internal links involved with eCommerce, you don’t want the links followed. Pages in the cart, tags on products and other such user metainformation, NoFollow attributes are important.
• Canonical, meanwhile, is your general weapon against duplicate content created by dynamically generated search results. Set canonical tags for anything that’s generated with multiple possible URLs to the same destination; this avoids the duplicate content penalties often associated with eCommerce installations.
• NoIndex is more of a brute force method of telling Google that an individual page should not be indexed. It’s simple to use and effective, though it’s not always the best choice. Sometimes you want something on the page to be indexed, so you need to use the above meta descriptors to refine search behavior.
• Rel=next and prev are important tags to add to your pagination, if you have paginated search results. It’s another way of cutting back on duplicate content, usually specific to eCommerce and search pages. Essentially, any pages linked by next and prev tags are treated as one giant page that include all results, so you don’t receive duplicate or thin content penalties.
Generally, you will want to make decisions based on the specific situation of your page; what is indexed, what is penalizing you and what has already been implemented.
If you’re more focused on SEO to grow your business to a level where it is sustainable on its own momentum, your primary option is likely to put the site search on the back burner. Hide it behind a strict robots.txt firewall and see to it that any possible duplicate content issues are dealt with.
On the other hand, if your site has the users to support it without the pure focus on SEO, you should opt to enhance your search. Take steps to format the results as closely as possible in line with Google’s. After all, Google knows how to provide value. Follow their example. Make your results pages as useful as they can possibly be.
In all cases, you should use your site search as a tool to discover more about your users. Whenever a user inputs a search query, check it against the results they receive and their subsequent actions. Do they find what they were looking for? Does it encourage them to convert? Are there pages that seem to be hard to find, but present? You can make changes to address all of these. And, in the cases where a user searches for content you don’t have, it’s a perfect opportunity to create that content for publication.