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Who, What, Where, When, Why (& How!) – Harnessing the power of Internal Site Search

July 14, 2014

This post is based on an analytics tip I shared at Adobe’s Summit last year.  If you were at the conference, this may sound familiar.  If not- I hope you find some good ideas for utilizing your internal search data, as these tips can apply to any web analytics platform configured to collect site search terms.

One of the most obvious uses of internal site search is to see which terms are typed in most often, and use that data to prioritize updates to your website.  The terms at the top are what people are looking for most often, so they must be the most critical, right?

That is often true- but what I have historically found is that people actually use the internal site search box in three distinct ways.

Harnessing Key Words:

If you look at the “out of the box” internal site search report in your web analytics tool, the top ranked results tend to be single words.  There’s nothing wrong with this list- as you can still see which words people type in the most often.  Lots of your site visitors are going to use the search box to type in a single word, and this report is great. You can share this report with your stakeholders and say “here are the Top 10 keywords our visitors typed in on the site” and make your stakeholders happy.

What I really LOVE about internal site search reports are the results that fall a bit further down the list.  If you are thinking “ughh- that’s just a bunch of long tail results that are hard to sift through” – here are some tips for sorting your results and finding even more insights about your site:

Harnessing Key Phrases:

Some of your site visitors are going to enter short phrases vs. single words.  The odds that everyone uses the same 2 or 3 words, and enters them in the same order (and spells the words the same) is very low- so these results can end up scattered throughout your internal site search report.  How do you know what these phrases are?

Tip: filter on key terms (say, the names of key products, people, or locations that may be relevant to your website or company).  This will give you a clustered set of results that can help identify phrases that may yield additional insights.  Anything involving more than one word is likely to be more unique within your search results- so this filter can help you find, and count how many people entered similar phrases.  It can be surprising to find those results bubble up higher than a single word at the top of your internal site search report.

Harnessing Key Questions:

Did you know….some people will actually use the internal site search box to enter in an entire question? This is where the power of filtering becomes powerful.

Tip: Filter your internal site search results by the words Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How – and suddenly the clouds will part, angels will start singing, and you will see actual questions your site visitors have entered on your website. It doesn’t get any closer to finding the “Voice of your Customer” in your web analytics data than finding these questions that have been buried deep within your site search reports.  (You heard angels singing, right?) Okay, okay, not all of these terms may produce meaningful results for your website- but I am willing to bet you will find some pleasant surprises.

Sample “questions” you might find in your internal site search reports:

–       Where can I buy your product? (if it’s not sold online your visitor might be looking for retail locations)

–       What type of product should I buy? (a shopper looking for more information to aid in online ordering)

–       When will your new product be available? (a loyal customer who wants to be first in line)

I have found sharing the overall top Key Terms, along with the top Key Phrases and top Key Questions can help illustrate how your users are interacting with your site (and the search box).  Analyzing the results of these three types of searches can help you assess which types of issues your site visitors are encountering, and prioritize site or content updates with a more complete view of your guests’ voice.


Embracing Change and Giving Thanks

May 28, 2014

After six and a half years, this is my last week with Vail Resorts.  While I have had an incredible experience working in a role that combines two of my personal passions (skiing and analytics), I have decided it is time to step out of my comfort zone and try something new.

As I reflect on my experiences over the past several years, I am grateful for so many things.

Innovative Leadership:  I have been fortunate to work with many brilliant, innovative leaders. Working for one of the largest companies in the ski industry has been interesting on so many levels- but particularly when I consider the leaders who continue to push and grow the company for the future.

Talented Colleagues: I also had the privilege to work with some of the most passionate and talented colleagues you could find in one company.  When I started with Vail, Facebook and Twitter were barely mainstream or non-existent.  I was fortunate to see our company grow from one Facebook page, to an on-mountain digital experience that changed the way people share their experiences from the ski slopes.

A Smart Team: I’ve been able to build up the web analytics practice from a team of one (hey it’s just me!) to a group of four. Saying good-bye to them will not be easy, but I can take comfort knowing they are some of the best, most creative problem solvers out there.  They are going to do just fine carrying the torch forward. J

Generous Analytics Industry:  When I started out as a solo analyst, I relied on many people to get me through my first few Site Catalyst Implementations.  Vendors, consultants, people on Twitter I’ve never met in person but who were generous enough to lend an ear and answer questions. Over time, that network of support has grown to include people I now consider friends, and I have relished the opportunities we have had to support each other over the years.  Finding a smart group of people with common professional interests, passions, and challenges was, and continues to be a blessing.  I am looking forward to continuing those relationships in the future.

So what’s next? I am going to work as an independent contractor. A few years ago, the thought of going freelance might have terrified me.  Today, I find myself excited by the opportunity to learn about different companies, in different industries, and to help other companies with their digital analytics needs.  I’m looking forward to stretching and growing and trying something fresh and new. I feel fortunate to have found a great opportunity as an independent contractor. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my career thus far, and am looking forward to new opportunities and adventures.

Are you a Tag Management Vendor?

February 6, 2013

If so, I think I’d like to speak with you.  I say “think”, not because I’m not sure whether I want to actually talk to you, but because the world of Tag Management Systems seems to be forging ahead at lightning speed, and this is a concept where I feel like a novice.  I’ve been thinking “I should really investigate this further”, but putting off the topic for a bit while working on other areas of our Analytics Practice here at Vail Resorts (in my defense, it’s the middle of ski season, people!)

So I’m trying a slightly different approach here, time (and the future) will tell me if this is a good idea.  My organization does not currently have a Tag Managment System in place, but we have talked about it at a high level.  Due to current projects, priorities, and budget, I do not yet have a timeline for when we bring a TMS on board.  But, what I would like to do is set up time to get my Analytics and Web Development teams familiar with the world of TMS, so we can better assess the feasibility and timing of such effort.

So, having said that- if you are a TMS vendor, I’d love to set up an intro meeting to go over the following:

  • Overview of what a Tag Management System does
  • Overview of the business benefits of having a TMS
  • Overview of the technical benefits of having a TMS
  • High level overview of the TMS Implementation process
  • High level product demo
  • Tips for building the business case to spend $$ on a TMS

This goal is to provide the folks I work with (and myself) a good sense of what we are biting off when we say “Let’s get a Tag Management System”.

If you are interested, please shoot me a Direct Message on Twitter (@nancyskoons) and let’s start talking about a meeting.

Since I am experimenting with my approach here- let’s add some crowdsourcing into the mix.  If you have already implemented a TMS, and think there are other topics or questions I should include in the list above, I’d love to hear that feedback in the comments!

I’m trying this approach because I am feeling too busy to reach out to vendors on an individual basis- it seems like this is an easier approach to outline what I’m looking for and see who is intereseted in talking.  I also like the ability to document my thoughts ahead of time, which is why I thought my blog post would provide an easy reference for myself, and anyone who wants to chat.

My Beef With Facebook

January 13, 2013

Oh Facebook.  You’ve got millions of fans, and tons of critics.  I know.  I’ve read plenty of articles, posts, and comments on both Facebook and Twitter from people who criticize your privacy policies, and lament about your overall strategy and how you are going to handle mobile.

But I have not seen anyone else address the things that get under my skin about your site, so here goes:

My Beef with Facebook

Am I here to say “I’m fed up with Facebook and am cancelling my account!”?  Nope.  I enjoy using your site to stay in touch with friends and keep current on their lives, as well as share stories and photos from my own life.  But I’ve been generally doing this for several years now, and frankly, I’m getting bored.  I’m wanting and wishing and hoping you’ll bring some interesting innovation to your service.  Something to get me excited (oh and hey,  increase my engagement).  I think you’ve been trying- really, but your efforts are falling flat.  Since I’ve not seen anyone else call these issues, out, I’m bringing them to the surface myself:

Privacy and Control Settings:  Sure, I’m not the first person to identify some pet peeves with your privacy policies.  The thing that really puzzles me is how complex your privacy policies have become, and how difficult it is for the normal user to understand them.  My main pet peeve with your privacy and control settings is that I still don’t feel in control of the content I see in my news feed.

Example:  I frequently see posts pop up that involve one of my FB friends commenting on one of their FB friends photos or stories.  1) I am really not interested in reading other people’s interactions when I don’t know one of the parties involved, and 2) I’m not sure these people would be comfortable knowing I am can read their back-and-forth exchange.  Particularly the person who does not know me.  Is this a function of my privacy settings, my friend’s privacy settings, or her friend’s privacy settings?  I don’t know.  It makes me weary of posting more content because I also don’t know just how far my content “creeps” beyond my network of friends.  Mainly, I want it to stop and wish I had a way to control this on my end.  I don’t mind seeing ads and suggested pages to follow in my newsfeed, I get it that you need to bring in revenue.  But when I see personal content, I want it to  be the personal content of me, or my friends.  No one else.

News Feed Settings:  My preference is to see “Most Recent” stories, as I like to scroll through my day and check whether any of my friends posted some content I want to read–  but what I find is that often my News Feed defaults to “Top Stories”.  If you are going to offer me a choice, let me make my selection and don’t change it.  I’m not asking for anything new- just honor my preferences if you are going to offer them to me.  That’s all.

Forcing me to convert to Timeline:  Some people may think the Timeline feature was great- but I am not overly impressed (if I’m missing something about Timeline, please readers, let me know in the comments). When Timeline first came out, some of my early adopter friends started migrating over, but almost as quickly, I started reading about usability complaints.  So I decided to sit this feature out.  Then I started hearing that you were going to force everyone to migrate- which, in and of itself is rather annoying.  If it is such a great new feature, I should want to switch on my own, right?  Again, someone PLEASE tell me what I am missing about Timeline.  Then you started casually posting messages at the top of my newsfeed letting me know that X number of my friends were already on Timeline and that I should switch too.  But here’s the catch- I can do math.  The number of friends who had switched to Timeline was just under 50% of my total number of friends.  With an adoption rate hovering right around 50%, I know I was not the only person who had decided to nix the new Timeline.  In the end, you switched me over about six months ago.  Somehow, forcing your users to adopt your new and innovative functionality just doesn’t sit right.  Do I hate Timeline?  No.  But do I love it and has it changed my experience and engagement on your site?  Nope.

“Flat Innovation”:  At the end of 2012 you rolled out a nifty looking “Year in Review” application, where I could click on the app and you pulled together a summary of 2012 for me to share with my friends.  I was able to quickly figure out that all this app did was grab four of my profile pictures and put them together as an image.  Here’s the problem:  In 2012 I didn’t update my profile picture. (I update my cover image frequently, profile pic….. rarely.  You should know this, right?).  So all four of the photos you pulled together to highlight 2012 were from 2010 and 2011.  I didn’t share the image on my newsfeed because it was totally irrelevant.  What would have been fun was if the app had pulled together a sample of all of the photos I uploaded in 2012 and let me select which ones I wanted to highlight.  Then I would have pulled together pictures from my summer trip to France, my son’s birthday, and time with family and friends.  I have many fond memories of 2012, shared on Facebook, but your app did nothing to enhance this for me.

What I Wish For

Better control over what I see and share.  Intuitive, easy to navigate privacy settings.  A few years ago it was much easier to see my settings and tweak them- now, it seems as though those settings are more hidden (or at least, I can’t find them).

What I Wish just ONE website would do in 2013 (and yes, Facebook, I am looking squarely at you):  Build a platform and innovate by providing your users with more control over what they see.

You have oodles and oodles of data.  I know, because I am a web measurement professional.  You should be able to measure how people engage with your site when they are new.  When they reach X number of friends.  When they’ve been on the site for X number of years.  When they start using Facebook on their mobile device.  When their parents or their kids become their “friends”.  When you roll out new functionality.  We are all here, engaging on your platform, and there are nuances that you should be able to capture, and measure, and use to improve the site.

Like I said at the beginning- I still enjoy connecting with my friends using your service, but it feels as though your site has become a bit stale.  You are in the enviable position of having one of the largest audiences in the world, which brings a greater degree of diversity than most sites enjoy.  Yet, we are all essentially experiencing the same product.  Surprise us.  Innovate. Provide us with something that we ask for, and more importantly, provide us with something we didn’t even know we wanted.  Give us choices, honor those choices, and provide us with some control over our experience.

How I use Twitter to Get My Job Done

September 19, 2012

You’ve probably heard people talk about the various reasons to be on Twitter, and no doubt have your own thoughts on using this social platform to share or consume information.  I’m going to share today how I use Twitter professionally, because it has become an efficient tool I use in my job on a regular basis.  I think it’s important to note that I don’t keep a monitor open with Twitter feeds running constantly-  I have found I’m able to scan Twitter a few times a day, for minutes at a time and stay generally abreast of the information I want to consume.

So, how exactly have I found Twitter to be useful?

  1. Following companies, organizations and experts who tweet about my industry.  I am a web analyst- and I have discovered that web analysts’ really like Twitter!  People within the industry are constantly posting great articles, blog posts, and conversing with one another about web analytics topics and it’s a great place to pop in over lunch and find something interesting to read.
  2. Following other web analysts and industry consultants:  Sometimes these are people I have met in person at conferences, but just as often they are people I’ve not met- but we manage to find one another via shared contacts.  Other analytics practitioners are great resources for asking questions, or bouncing ideas off of because they have likely faced a similar challenge.  Analytics consultants are wonderfully generous with their time, and because they have worked with a variety of practitioners, they often are able to answer questions quickly as well.
  3. Following people who work for the vendors whose tools I use in my day-to-day job.  They often share tips, best practices, or are engaging in Q&A with other clients.  Following these interactions when I have time allows me to learn and pick up tips to better leverage the tools I use on a daily basis.
  4. Actively using Twitter as a Q&A forum to solve problems.  This is where the true power of the platform comes in to play once you have built up a decent network and are familiar with the types of questions that people can answer.  You can pose questions to your followers, or find the hashtags that are relevant for your topic or industry and pose questions to anyone who follows those hashtags.  In the past few weeks, I have posed questions to followers of a few key hashtags and received answers within a few minutes.  This is far more efficient than picking up the phone or even engaging in a web chat session with my vendor’s support desk.  Answers might come from the vendor’s employees, but just as often they come from other practitioners or consultants who are happy to chime in and answer a question.

Whether you simply want to consume information and learn, or actively participate in Q&A or conversations, finding and connecting with industry peers is a powerful way to stay abreast of best practices and develop professionally on your own timeline, from the comfort of your computer.

The Blessing & Curse of Empathy

March 26, 2012

About six months ago, everyone in my department went through an exercise called “Strengthfinders”.  If you are not familiar, it is an online test designed to tease out your individual strengths.  A companion book describes each individual strength in greater detail, offers tips for leveraging your strengths and incorporating them into an individual development plan.  It was an interesting process, and I really liked how the author of Strengthfinders makes the argument that it is far better to focus on leveraging your inner strengths than to try to mend or repair your weaknesses.

One of my strengths is Empathy.

Em-pa-thy: noun. 1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I’ve always sensed that this was a personal trait, so it was interesting to see it surface as an actual strength.  It is important to note that empathy should not be confused with:

 sympathy: noun

1. harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.

2. the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.

3. the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.

Possessing empathy does not mean I walk around all day feeling bad for other people (at least not the majority of my days).

Where empathy is a true strength (an actual blessing) is in my professional work life.  I have an acute sense for anticipating and understanding how people will react to news or other events, and can use this strength to come up with ways to counter negative feelings that sometimes come with reorganizations, shifts in strategy, lay-offs, or other big events in the workplace.  I can also sense the subtle shifts in attitude that accompany the shelving of projects, the re-assignment of teams, or the simple act of showering praise on one employee while another sits unnoticed.  The more I work as a manager of people, the more I realize it would be difficult to maintain relationships with my employees without this skill.

Where empathy can be a curse is in my personal life.  The ability to sense, even anticipate how other people are feeling, or reacting to a difficult situation can be overwhelming at times.  In the past six months several people, very close to me have grappled with issues like death, depression, serious illness, and divorce.  Intensely sensing how my loved ones feel, as I think about them dealing with these major setbacks and challenges in their life is an extremely powerful experience.

Where empathy is particularly debilitating is in situations where I have some direct experience.  Thankfully, most of the tough situations I’ve been observing involve things I have no direct experience with in my life.

But over the weekend, a friend and former colleague was involved in a serious ski accident.  She is currently in a medically induced coma while a team of doctors works to control swelling in her brain.  She has an amazing network of friends, family and colleagues cheering her on.  As I read her family’s posts about getting to her bedside, I found myself struggling to maintain my composure.

Six years ago this winter, my husband and I were skiing in bright, but flat sunlight- above tree line where we did not have the benefit of trees to help add context to the landscape.  My husband, a strong skier, zipped ahead of me and our friends, anxious to enjoy the bluebird day.  He didn’t see a lip in the terrain, and ended up skiing over a cornice with a surprise drop of approx 25 feet.  When I reached him, he was lying in the snow with a bruised and battered face, struggling to breath.   Thankfully, the friend we were skiing with that day was a doctor, and he immediately began to assess my husband’s condition and check his vitals while other passing skiers summoned ski patrol.

Soon, we were surrounded by two ski patrollers.  Then there were four.  Two more arrived, including a woman who was a head nurse at the local hospital, and they summoned two more.  It felt like the entire ski patrol had been mobilized.  The flight for life helicopter was placed on standby notice as an oxygen mask was placed over my husband’s mouth and he was loaded onto a backboard.  I was instructed to ride on the back of a snowmobile as my husband was rushed to the bottom of the mountain.  I can still remember wrapping my arms around the ski patrolman and the ride feeling like a complete blur.

Thankfully, at the medical center at the bottom of the mountain my husband’s breathing had stabilized, and the medics were able to assess that he most likely no injuries to his head or internal bleeding, so we were loaded up into an ambulance and headed to the hospital.  The next two days involved lots of x-rays, scans, and hand wringing to confirm that he indeed had a thoracic fracture in his back, but no other injuries.   Several nurses assessed the cuts and bruises on his face, wiggled his nose and said over and over again that they could not believe he escaped without any broken bones in his face.  His doctors told us his helmet saved him from far worse injuries.

So when I read posts from my friend’s brother, about the agonizing journey to his sister’s bedside, and imagined her family gathered around her bed- I felt like the ruins of a shipwreck had been dislodged from the bottom of the ocean by a massive tidal wave.

I am realizing that empathy is a blessing when I am able to anticipate a situation, and help identify and affect a positive outcome.  It feels like a curse in the times when I am helpless to offer assistance, and can’t help but feel others’ pain deeply in my heart.  Piled on top of several other recent struggles by loved ones, my heart couldn’t take much more.  This weekend my husband could only offer a hug and the words “try not to think about this so much”.  He felt helpless, but in some sense was right.  I needed to process, and then I needed to think about something else.

Would I trade this strength for another one?  I don’t think so.  I truly value the role empathy plays in my professional life.  And without it in some of life’s most difficult situations, I do wonder whether I could truly appreciate and feel what others are going through.

I think right now I’m just ready for some good news.

Epilogue: My friend and former colleague is one of the best skiers I know, she was wearing her helmet, and she has served as a volunteer ski patroller at the same mountain where my husband was injured for the past six years.  I know she knows how to ski safely, and to take precautions.  My heart still goes out to her family, and I’m praying for her full recovery, from a much better place in my heart tonight.

Everyone Take A Deep Breath

August 10, 2011

I love the web analytics industry for many reasons- but one of them is the pure passion that so many folks bring to this little niche that none of us grew up anticipating we would work in someday.  I’m proud to be able to say I work among peers who have defined what our industry does, come up with a code of ethics, and continuously thinks about, and challenges what it means to work in our industry.  I also appreciate the passion, the thoughtfulness, and the sense of humor I have found daily in the #measure community. 

Yesterday’s conversations around the strengths and weaknesses of various tools, and the ongoing conversations around why we still see broken implementations in 2011 has me thinking about how we find ourselves in this situation, and how we move forward.  So here is my first (ever) blog post, and my thoughts on the subject:

About me: I work on the client side.  I have experience analyzing data in three different web analytics tools, and that experience goes back several years, but my implementation experience is limited to one tool.  I fall into the “stronger on the business side than the implementation side”.  My implementation experience started about 3 years ago, and continues to this day.  I now have our web analytics tool running across 40 websites.   I am still responsible for those original implementations and the data that gets collected and reported on across all 40 sites.  I don’t take that responsibility lightly.  Also, I am not perfect.  Far from it.  But I do consider myself *reasonably* intelligent.  And motivated to put my best effort into my job every day, and appreciative of the tools I use which help me analyze data and get information out to my stakeholders on a daily basis.

Since I have experience “implementing an analytics tool with no prior experience implementing an analytics tool” (wait, don’t we all fall under this category at some point?), I think I’m qualified to point out a few of the pitfalls I experienced, and why I think there is still opportunity for improvement.

When it came time to implement our new web analytics tool, there were three groups involved.  Myself from the client side, some analytics consultants from an agency building some new websites, and an implementation consultant from the tool vendor.  We all had good intentions.  We all wanted to succeed.  We all wanted to do a good job.  I truly believe that the vendor and our consultants had my organization’s best interests in mind.

We discussed business requirements at length: We talked about which metrics were important, and how we wanted to measure our success.  That portion of the project was relatively smooth for me, as it is the part of the process where I feel more comfortable, but I also know we missed a few things (and I take responsibility for that issue contributing to a solution that is not 100% perfect today).  What was not as easy for me was figuring out how to capture this data in a manner that would allow our organization to report on it in the exact manner that we envisioned using this brand new tool that I knew little about.  I felt bombarded by questions and conversations that revolved around whether to pass data into both an eVar and a prop, or just one of them, and when to do this….as well as…. should we set a regular event? Or a custom event? do we need a VISTA rule? or is there a plug-in to support the logic we needed?  Or, maybe we need a VISTA rule AND a plug-in (oh, did I just disclose who my vendor is?).  Oh, and do I want to correlate or sub-relate each of these pieces of data?  Dizzying, from my perspective. 

I’d be fine if, in the end, we got exactly what we set out to get on Day 1, even if it meant a missed requirement resulted in a missing report.  But something went wrong.  Reports, which were supposed to show consistent results, weren’t showing consistent results.  Data we expected in one report was showing up in a different report.  We couldn’t find a logical way to run paid and natural search reports side by side.  I didn’t  know yet that we were getting burned by the form analysis plug-in in a really big, bad way (that learning was still months away).  What was difficult to digest then, and still is today, was that the vendor’s consultant was not able to anticipate and mitigate these issues before they occurred.  He had our best interests in mind, but he also struggled. A lot.

Thankfully I have one of the most wonderful account managers in the world, and she helped advocate on our behalf and extra resources were corralled to help fix our problems.  Ultimately the vendor also owned up to those problems, and for that, Omniture, I am grateful and I have a lot of respect.

Since then, we have sought to collect additional data using our tool.  We’ve launched new websites, new campaigns, and new initiatives, which have involved thinking about how to scale our implementation to grow and collect more data.  I have reached out, and I have asked how to do something new, something different- and I have literally received three different answers from three different resources at said vendor about how to track something.  That troubles me.  A lot.

My issue is not necessarily around whether the tool is engineered the best way, or whether it has kept pace.  It certainly sounds like there are opportunities for improvement.  It also sounds like many tools out there face similar challenges

My issue is this: If the people who are supposed to have the most knowledge about a tool are struggling to advise me how to implement their tool, what am I  supposed to think?  And what am I supposed to do?  Is all the complexity of the tool worthwhile if no one can tell me how to leverage it?  Today, it makes me think twice, and I am loathe to make major changes.  Ultimately, is this what a vendor wants to hear from their customer?  That their customer is hesitant and a little scared to adopt more functionality or make changes?  I don’t think so.  

Improvements to the engineering of analytics tools will hopefully make some of these issues go away, but I believe tool vendors also need to focus on how well their own resources are able to advise clients on the usage of their own tools. 


  • I believe the folks on the client side own the responsibility of gathering business requirements and bringing those to the table at the beginning of an implementation.  The vendor cannot anticipate which metrics are most valuable, or even what those metrics are without client input.
  • I believe the vendor, who has programmed and coded their tool to function a specific way, is responsible for helping the client translate their business requirements into technical requirements for implementation.   The client cannot anticipate data processing rules which impact how the data gets from their website into the correct variable. 
  • I believe this is not easy, and it requires both sides to work closely together. 
  • And I believe there are still improvements to this process which both sides can and should work on together.