Review of Lou Rosenfeld's "Search Analytics for Your Site"
It’s taken a while to arrive, but Lou Rosenfeld’s Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers was definitely worth the wait. Rosenfeld is an important voice in the information architecture and UX community, considered by many to be a pioneer in the information architecture space after writing the seminal “Polar Bear Book,” Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, with Peter Morville in 2002. While some may brush off Search Analytics for Your Site as just another web analytics how-to guide, it may actually be one of the most important books to hit our community since the “Polar Bear Book.” Search Analytics for Your Site is a must-read for anyone involved with design, content strategy, or even marketing on the Web.
Site Search Analytics
Site search analytics (SSA) involves mining user search query data to generate useful and actionable insights. Different than search engine optimization (SEO), SSA looks not at what users are typing into external search engines (e.g., Google) to find your site, but rather what they are actually looking for when they arrive on your site. As Rosenfeld states in the first chapter of Search Analytics for Your Site, “If people searching the Web are essentially the leads you want to attract, people searching your site are the customers you hope to retain… site search data is semantically rich in a way that no other analytics data comes close to.” As renowned web analytics expert Avinash Kaushik points out in his excellent foreword, when people search they “become astonishingly precise about why they are there.”
Why Search Analytics for Your Site Is Important
This isn’t just another book of web analytics tips and tricks—it’s more a call to action. Search Analytics for Your Site not only offers very approachable means of employing search query data in your day-to-day practices, but also emphasizes the importance of breaking down internal silos and disparate departments to create a single, powerful ”user research brain” within your organization. This “brain”—this shared, organization-wide understanding of user wants and needs—is key to good user experience.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the UX community about designing for “cross channel” experiences, but Rosenfeld has been one of the most outspoken proponents of this concept for some time. In Search Analytics for Your Site, he delves into the trickier, more delicate issues of the politics surrounding ownership of practice and data. Rosenfeld offers solid advice on how to navigate within your organization and build alliances you will likely need, not only to access your search query data, but also to interpret and apply it.
Search Analytics for Your Site acknowledges that understanding user behavior should be the domain of the business or organization as a whole, and provides useful, practical advice on how to achieve this focus. Entire sections and chapters of the book discuss how to collaborate across departments and across siloes within your organization. The book also provides excellent examples of how SSA data can benefit each of the various internal stakeholder groups that help to shape a user’s experience as a whole.
What the Book Covers
Search Analytics for Your Site illustrates different techniques for analyzing SSA data, with each chapter building incrementally from simple applications of SSA to more complex, top-down ones. The early chapters provide useful guidance on pattern, failure, and session-based analysis, while later ones offer more technically heavy advice on issues such as monitoring, tweaking, and improving performance of internal search applications and results relevancy.
Rosenfeld does an excellent job of addressing the discomfort many designers feel when confronted with data analysis, and offers guidance on how to avoid “analysis paralysis”—becoming overwhelmed by the volume of available data. He encourages newcomers to start small, as even just a tiny slice of available search query data (as little as the top 25 most queried keywords or phrases) is likely to account for the bulk of a site’s search queries. He encourages readers to feel free to “play” with available data, and to look at it not as a replacement for qualitative analysis but more as a jumping-off point for deeper investigations.
Keeping with the theme of building alliances, shared goals, and working cross-departmentally, Search Analytics for Your Site demonstrates the various ways SSA data analysis is beneficial across an organization. Are users consistently submitting a high ratio of single-word queries? Rosenfeld suggests designers may want to address or test the length of the search text field. And having insight into the actual vocabulary users apply when searching a site can prove invaluable to information architects or anyone concerned with navigation design.
For UX practitioners, SSA can reveal interesting uses of data in the creation of traditional UX deliverables—for example, a round of session analysis can reveal a wealth of user stories helpful in the development of personas. Rosenfeld also points out how SSA can provide useful data for marketing departments: “Today’s narrow local search terms may be good predictors of tomorrow’s valuable keywords,” providing marketers great insight on useful search terms they might consider bidding on."
With chapters on audience segmentation and improvement of content using SSA data, Search Analytics for Your Site will likely also end up being snatched off your desk by the content strategists within your organization.
What the Book Does Well
Like all Rosenfeld Media books, Search Analytics for Your Site is well written, concise, and easy to read. It’s absorbing on first pass, and has lasting value as a handy reference manual. This is key, as Rosenfeld emphasizes the need for SSA to become an ongoing part of your day-to-day practice. He encourages readers to approach it more as “5% of your time” project than a “one-off” project. Conducting ongoing analysis is a means of strengthening your SSA muscles. Search Analytics for Your Site offers many real, relatable case studies, and is packed with rich sidebars of information by other leading practitioners of SSA, such as Marko Hurst. These include hands-on tips and links to a generous amount of supplemental resources and materials such as downloadable spreadsheets preformatted to help get you started.
Search Analytics for Your Site provides real-world strategies for quick wins, and points out that while these may amount to small gains at first, every incremental 3 or 5% improvement adds up. Readers will find many easy, actionable applications in just the first three chapters of the book. These are helpful in demonstrating the value of SSA to wary executives, and hopefully in providing the support necessary to delve into more involved, complex applications of data as time goes on.
While this book provides an excellent, accessible entry point for readers new to the concept of analytics, it will also satisfy more experienced practitioners and those already familiar with site search and web analytics.
What Could Be Improved
Since Rosenfeld delves into more complex applications of SSA (including log file analysis and performance optimization of enterprise search applications), some smaller business and site owners may find sections of the book slightly beyond their reach. However, there is more than enough lower-level and Google Analytics-based techniques and data analysis to make the book a worthwhile read.
While the information, resources and techniques contained in the sidebar sections of each chapter are valuable, readers might elect to skip over these on their first read-through. Though extremely useful when you’re in hands-on mode, I sometimes found them to be distracting and somewhat overwhelming.
Should You Read This Book?
Absolutely! As someone who came into UX and interaction design by way of a marketing and web analytics background, I have spent considerable time and energy convincing others of the value of web analytics and quantitative data. With Search Analytics for Your Site, Lou Rosenfeld easily demonstrates how applying this data will not only vastly improve your users’ experiences, but also how it can help you to build alliances within your organization and pull off the quick wins your executives want to see.