Let’s Talk About Search

Organic Search vs. Site Search: What’s the Diff?

Search is one of those subjects that everybody has an opinion on because it’s something every one of us is intimately familiar with. We use search dozens of times a day and we feel like we are all experts in what constitutes “great” search. I’d like to offer that our concept of search is flawed because we have a tendency to think of “search” as monolithic–and for good reason.

Google dominates the realm of search–at least the type of web search we’re all accustomed to. In 2018, Google averages 40,000 web search queries per second! That’s equivalent to 3.5 billion searches per day.1  That’s a lot of data. Data that Google can parse in countless ways. Data they can use to build predictive behavioral models and find meaning or connection between things we wouldn’t necessarily correlate. But that data also creates a bias in our own thinking. How so?

First, let’s distinguish between the different types of search. The 3.5 billion Google searches per day are just one type of search–organic search. Albeit, it’s the search we think of when we talk about web search. But, it’s not the only one. The other type of search we’re going to consider is site search, which occurs on your own website. The differences are critical because what’s good for one is not necessarily the case for the other. And because we tend to associate our thinking and impressions of organic search as being relevant to website search, we set ourselves up for some pretty significant mistakes when it comes to focusing on site search instead of organic search.

Organic Search

Organic search is critical and it’s undergoing transformational change with the explosion of voice search. Of that there is no doubt. Ensuring optimal performance for organic search (SEO) needs constant care and feeding, as well as active nurturing to ensure SERP performance is driving traffic to your site. But that’s a topic for a different article as it’s a complex subject and not germane to the point I’m trying to make. For now, we’re going to focus on why most healthcare organization’s site search efforts are largely irrelevant to the actual user journey and site behavior we see on most enterprise sites.

Chances are if you manage a large enterprise website you have a fairly robust site search functionality; and if you don’t, you’re putting together a plan and finding budget to improve your site search. Perhaps you run Microsoft Index Services, Google’s cloud search platform, Coveo’s Sitecore search engine, or an open-source custom built search engine built on Apache/SOLR to give you robust indexing and search capabilities. Whatever flavor of search engine you’ve chosen for your website, there’s a good chance you have some of the hallmarks of modern search: predictive entry (autocomplete), suggested search terms, results biasing algorithms, search categories and taxonomic data structures, and a host of advanced filtering criteria. All of this is pretty typical for an enterprise search implementation. And all of it comes with a pretty significant price tag that can easily get into the mid six figures, depending on the state of your data and the level of customization you need. Most digital teams take it on faith that they need to make this kind of investment because users expect that kind of search experience on the web. Yes, Google has conditioned users for a highly effective and robust search experience with organic search. But have you asked yourself whether that translates to your users’ experience with YOUR website?

Survey Says…

I recently analyzed web traffic data from 19 health systems and hospitals to better understand how users interact with healthcare websites’ internal search functions and the data reveal a very stark picture. Do website visitors use site search? They don’t. That’s right, site visitors don’t use the site search functionality as much as we think. In fact, they barely use it at all. In 16 of the 19 websites surveyed, over a 6 month period in 2018 less than 5% of the total website sessions included site search. Of the 3 sites that had more than 5% of user sessions involve site search, only 1 site had over 10% of users enter a search term into the site search engine. That means 95% of the user sessions on your website are completed without using site search. The sites included in the study range from small (200 bed) community hospitals, to large academic medical centers and multi-state regional health systems all throughout the United States. These data are fairly representative of the hospitals and health systems. The only group not represented were for-profit systems like Tenet and HCA.

What does this tell us? Site search is very different than organic search. While 60-70% of users perform an organic search before they visit a specific website, less than 10% of users perform a site search once on a website. Given this extreme disparity it begs the question: are we focusing our search efforts in the right place?

The data also suggest good web experiences factor into site search behavior more than we might initially expect. We can infer several things from the data surfaced in the study. Across the 19 sites, bounce rates ranged from a low of 25.8% to a high of 66.91%, suggesting there is no correlation between an inability to find content and a lack of using site search. In other words, even with high bounce rate sites we didn’t see users turning to site search as we might expect them to do before giving up on their session. Conventional wisdom presumes that user behavior on a healthcare website is heuristic, with users experiencing a site to find what they need. In reality, most behavior on a health system website is task driven and action oriented–find a physician, pay a bill, find a location, or the like. Thus, regardless of bounce rate, we didn’t see any uptick in site sessions with search in the data.

UX Matters, Even in Search

There’s a school of thought that a well architected site doesn’t need site search. I tend to agree, and the data for well-organized sites bears this notion out. Navigation structure and user experience play a huge role in orienting a site visitor to your site’s content and funneling he or she into the right path to find what they are looking for. If a site’s design employs consistency across interaction models, navigation, page structure, and button/link affordances, then user behavior becomes expected and intuitive as they navigate the site to find what they are looking for. We see this reflected in the data as measured by high average site durations and low bounce rate pairings. In the study, 12 of 19 sites had site duration/bounce rate pairings of >2:30 and less than 45%, telling us visitors were engaged with the site–let’s call that “stickiness”. Conversely, if the bounce rate was over 70% and the session duration was less than 1 minute, we can infer the user experience was poor and the visitor left. None of the sites in our sample set had those conditions. Furthermore, none of the 12 sites with high “stickiness” experienced greater than 5% of sessions with site search. We can conclude site search becomes unnecessary in a well-designed, well-structured site, where a user finds what they need and moves on when they’ve completed the task.

The other big reason why site search isn’t as critical as we think? Organic search. Chances are at least 60% of your site visitors came from an organic search query and if you’re SEO is working well, they likely landed on the page that was most relevant to query intent. 2 If the site visitor queried “minimally invasive knee surgery” on Google and clicked on a link to your orthopedic service page about that type of procedure, chances are the content that caused the page to rank for their query is the content that’s relevant to their interest. Again, site search becomes unnecessary. If your site reinforces that with a well-designed user experience and intuitive logically built site architecture, you’ve made the case for site search even less likely.

The Bottom Line

So what does all this tell us? Well, if you’ve done the right things with the fundamentals of your site design and SEO, you’re diminishing the need for your site visitors to use site search and you need to ask yourself if you’re focusing on the right type of search for your needs. Organic search has a higher propensity to convert a user into a customer than site search does, so your budget and commitment to each should reflect that. Does it?

If your organization has an imbalance between the budget you allocate to organic search and site search, I’m pretty confident we can help you find what’s right for you and streamline the time and energy you invest into both endeavors. Drop a comment here or contact us if you want to chat more about how to ensure you’re focusing on the right type of search for your organization.